Searching for Optimal Sensory Signals: Iterative Stimulus Reconstruction in Closed-Loop Experiments

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Abstract

Shaped by evolutionary processes, sensory systems often represent behaviorally relevant stimuli with higher fidelity than other stimuli. The stimulus dependence of neural reliability could therefore provide an important clue in a search for relevant sensory signals. We explore this relation and introduce a novel iterative algorithm that allows one to find stimuli that are reliably represented by the sensory system under study. To assess the quality of a neural representation, we use stimulus reconstruction methods. The algorithm starts with the presentation of an initial stimulus (e.g. white noise). The evoked spike train is recorded and used to reconstruct the stimulus online. Within a closed-loop setup, this reconstruction is then played back to the sensory system. Iterating this procedure, the newly generated stimuli can be better and better reconstructed. We demonstrate the feasibility of this method by applying it to auditory receptor neurons in locusts. Our data show that the optimal stimuli often exhibit pronounced sub-threshold periods that are interrupted by short, yet intense pulses. Similar results are obtained for simple model neurons and suggest that these stimuli are encoded with high reliability by a large class of neurons.

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