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PLoS One. 2012;7(1):e30155. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0030155. Epub 2012 Jan 17.

Encoding odorant identity by spiking packets of rate-invariant neurons in awake mice.

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Department of Basic Neurosciences, School of Medicine, University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland.



How do neural networks encode sensory information? Following sensory stimulation, neural coding is commonly assumed to be based on neurons changing their firing rate. In contrast, both theoretical works and experiments in several sensory systems showed that neurons could encode information as coordinated cell assemblies by adjusting their spike timing and without changing their firing rate. Nevertheless, in the olfactory system, there is little experimental evidence supporting such model.


To study these issues, we implanted tetrodes in the olfactory bulb of awake mice to record the odorant-evoked activity of mitral/tufted (M/T) cells. We showed that following odorant presentation, most M/T neurons do not significantly change their firing rate over a breathing cycle but rather respond to odorant stimulation by redistributing their firing activity within respiratory cycles. In addition, we showed that sensory information can be encoded by cell assemblies composed of such neurons, thus supporting the idea that coordinated populations of globally rate-invariant neurons could be efficiently used to convey information about the odorant identity. We showed that different coding schemes can convey high amount of odorant information for specific read-out time window. Finally we showed that the optimal readout time window corresponds to the duration of gamma oscillations cycles.


We propose that odorant can be encoded by population of cells that exhibit fine temporal tuning of spiking activity while displaying weak or no firing rate change. These cell assemblies may transfer sensory information in spiking packets sequence using the gamma oscillations as a clock. This would allow the system to reach a tradeoff between rapid and accurate odorant discrimination.

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