The metabolic cost of neural information

Nat Neurosci. 1998 May;1(1):36-41. doi: 10.1038/236.


We derive experimentally based estimates of the energy used by neural mechanisms to code known quantities of information. Biophysical measurements from cells in the blowfly retina yield estimates of the ATP required to generate graded (analog) electrical signals that transmit known amounts of information. Energy consumption is several orders of magnitude greater than the thermodynamic minimum. It costs 10(4) ATP molecules to transmit a bit at a chemical synapse, and 10(6)-10(7) ATP for graded signals in an interneuron or a photoreceptor, or for spike coding. Therefore, in noise-limited signaling systems, a weak pathway of low capacity transmits information more economically, which promotes the distribution of information among multiple pathways.

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Adenosine Triphosphate / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Diptera
  • Electrophysiology
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Photoreceptor Cells, Invertebrate / metabolism
  • Photoreceptor Cells, Invertebrate / physiology
  • Retina / cytology
  • Retina / metabolism
  • Retina / physiology*
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*
  • Synapses / physiology


  • Adenosine Triphosphate