A thesaurus for a neural population code Academic Article uri icon


  • Our ability to perceive the world is dependent on information from our senses being passed between different parts of the brain. The information is encoded as patterns of electrical pulses or ‘spikes’, which other brain regions must be able to decipher. Cracking this code would thus enable us to predict the patterns of nerve impulses that would occur in response to specific stimuli, and ‘decode’ which stimuli had produced particular patterns of impulses. This task is challenging in part because of its scale—vast numbers of stimuli are encoded by huge numbers of neurons that can send their spikes in many different combinations. Furthermore, neurons are inherently noisy and their response to identical stimuli may vary considerably in the number of spikes and their timing. This means that the brain cannot simply link a single unchanging pattern of firing with each stimulus, because these firing patterns are often distorted by biophysical noise. Ganmor et al. have now modeled the effects of noise in a network of neurons in the retina (found at the back of the eye), and, in doing so, have provided insights into how the brain solves this problem. This has brought us a step closer to cracking the neural code. First, 10 second video clips of natural scenes and artificial stimuli were played on a loop to a sample of retina taken from a salamander, and the responses of nearly 100 neurons in the sample were recorded for two hours. Dividing the 10 second clip into short segments provided a series of 500 stimuli, which the network had been exposed to more than 600 times. Ganmor et al. analyzed the responses of groups of 20 cells to each stimulus and found that physically similar firing patterns were not particularly likely to encode the same stimulus. This can be likened to the way that words such as ‘light’ and ‘night’ have similar structures but different meanings. Instead, the model reveals that each stimulus was represented by a cluster of firing patterns that bore little physical resemblance to one another, but which nevertheless conveyed the same meaning. To continue on with the previous example, this is similar to way that ‘light’ and ‘illumination’ have the same meaning but different structures. Ganmor et al. use these new data to map the organization of the ‘vocabulary’ of populations of cells the retina, and put together a kind of ‘thesaurus’ that enables new activity patterns of the retina to be decoded and could be used to crack the neural code. Furthermore, the organization of ‘synonyms’ is strikingly similar to codes that are favored in many forms of telecommunication. In these man-made codes, codewords that represent different items are chosen to be so distinct from each other that even if they were corrupted by noise, they could be correctly deciphered. Correspondingly, in the retina, patterns that carry the same meaning occupy a distinct area, and new patterns can be interpreted based on their proximity to these clusters.

publication date

  • January 1, 2015

published in