Quantifying neural coding of event timing

J Neurophysiol. 2009 Jan;101(1):402-17. doi: 10.1152/jn.90767.2008. Epub 2008 Nov 19.


Single-neuron firing is often analyzed relative to an external event, such as successful task performance or the delivery of a stimulus. The perievent time histogram (PETH) examines how, on average, neural firing modulates before and after the alignment event. However, the PETH contains no information about the single-trial reliability of the neural response, which is important from the perspective of a target neuron. In this study, we propose the concept of using the neural activity to predict the timing of the occurrence of an event, as opposed to using the event to predict the neural response. We first estimate the likelihood of an observed spike train, under the assumption that it was generated by an inhomogeneous gamma process with rate profile similar to the PETH shifted by a small time. This is used to generate a probability distribution of the event occurrence, using Bayes' rule. By an information theoretic approach, this method yields a single value (in bits) that quantifies the reduction in uncertainty regarding the time of an external event following observation of the spike train. We show that the approach is sensitive to the amplitude of a response, to the level of baseline firing, and to the consistency of a response between trials, all of which are factors that will influence a neuron's ability to code for the time of the event. The technique can provide a useful means not only of determining which of several behavioral events a cell encodes best, but also of permitting objective comparison of different cell populations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bayes Theorem
  • Electrophysiology
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Models, Neurological
  • Models, Statistical
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Poisson Distribution
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Time Factors