Spike timing, synchronization and information processing on the sensory side of the central nervous system

Prog Neurobiol. 2001 Dec;65(6):545-91. doi: 10.1016/s0301-0082(01)00019-3.


To what extent is the variability of the neuronal responses compatible with the use of spike timing for sensory information processing by the central nervous system? In reviewing the state of the art of this question, I first analyze the characteristics of this variability with its three elements: synaptic noise, impact of ongoing activity and possible fluctuations in evoked responses. I then review the recent literature on the various sensory modalities: somato-sensory, olfactory, gustatory and visual and auditory processing. I emphasize that the conditions in which precise timing, at the millisecond level, is usually obtained, are conditions that usually require dynamic stimulation or sharp changes in the stimuli. By contrast, situations in which stimulation not belonging to the temporal domain is temporally encoded lead to much coarser temporal coding; although in both cases, neural networks transmit the signals with similarly high precision. Synchronization among neurons is an important tool in information processing in both cases but again seems to act either at millisecond or tens of millisecond levels. Information theory applied to both situations confirms that the average rate of information transmission is much higher in dynamic than in static situations. These facts suggest that channels of precise temporal encoding may exist in the brain but imply populations of neurons working in a yet to be discovered way.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Central Nervous System / physiology*
  • Cortical Synchronization
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Mental Processes / physiology*
  • Perception / physiology*
  • Sensation / physiology*