Transient signals trigger synchronous bursts in an identified population of neurons

J Neurophysiol. 2009 Aug;102(2):714-23. doi: 10.1152/jn.91366.2008. Epub 2009 May 27.


It is an important task in neuroscience to find general principles that relate neural codes to the structure of the signals they encode. The structure of sensory signals can be described in many ways, but one important categorization distinguishes continuous from transient signals. We used the communication signals of the weakly electric fish to reveal how transient signals (chirps) can be easily distinguished from the continuous signal they disrupt. These communication signals-low-frequency sinusoids interrupted by high-frequency transients-were presented to pyramidal cells of the electrosensory lateral line lobe (ELL) during in vivo recordings. We show that a specific population of electrosensory neurons encodes the occurrence of the transient signal by synchronously producing a burst of spikes, whereas bursting was neither common nor synchronous in response to the continuous signal. We also confirmed that burst can be triggered by low-frequency modulations typical of prey signals. However, these bursts are more common in a different segment of the ELL and during spatially localized stimulation. These localized stimuli will elicit synchronized bursting only in a restricted number of cells the receptive fields of which overlap the spatial extent of the stimulus. Therefore the number of cells simultaneously producing a burst and the ELL segment responding most strongly may carry the information required to disambiguate chirps from prey signals. Finally we show that the burst response to chirps is due to a biophysical mechanism previously characterized by in vitro studies of electrosensory neurons. We conclude that bursting and synchrony across cells are important mechanisms used by sensory neurons to carry the information about behaviorally relevant but transient signals.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Electric Fish
  • Electric Organ / physiology*
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Pyramidal Cells / physiology*
  • Sensation*
  • Synaptic Potentials
  • Time Factors