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Biol Cybern. 2009 Jun;100(6):427-46. doi: 10.1007/s00422-008-0290-5. Epub 2009 Feb 3.

Neural coding and contextual influences in the whisker system.

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Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK.


A fundamental problem in neuroscience, to which Prof. Segundo has made seminal contributions, is to understand how action potentials represent events in the external world. The aim of this paper is to review the issue of neural coding in the context of the rodent whiskers, an increasingly popular model system. Key issues we consider are: the role of spike timing; mechanisms of spike timing; decoding and context-dependence. Significant insight has come from the development of rigorous, information theoretic frameworks for tackling these questions, in conjunction with suitably designed experiments. We review both the theory and experimental studies. In contrast to the classical view that neurons are noisy and unreliable, it is becoming clear that many neurons in the subcortical whisker pathway are remarkably reliable and, by virtue of spike timing with millisecond-precision, have high bandwidth for conveying sensory information. In this way, even small (approximately 200 neuron) subcortical modules are able to support the sensory processing underlying sophisticated whisker-dependent behaviours. Future work on neural coding in cortex will need to consider new findings that responses are highly dependent on context, including behavioural and internal states.

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