Spike count reliability and the Poisson hypothesis

J Neurosci. 2006 Jan 18;26(3):801-9. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2948-05.2006.


The variability of cortical activity in response to repeated presentations of a stimulus has been an area of controversy in the ongoing debate regarding the evidence for fine temporal structure in nervous system activity. We present a new statistical technique for assessing the significance of observed variability in the neural spike counts with respect to a minimal Poisson hypothesis, which avoids the conventional but troubling assumption that the spiking process is identically distributed across trials. We apply the method to recordings of inferotemporal cortical neurons of primates presented with complex visual stimuli. On this data, the minimal Poisson hypothesis is rejected: the neuronal responses are too reliable to be fit by a typical firing-rate model, even allowing for sudden, time-varying, and trial-dependent rate changes after stimulus onset. The statistical evidence favors a tightly regulated stimulus response in these neurons, close to stimulus onset, although not further away.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Validation Study

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Poisson Distribution
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology