Distributed processing and temporal codes in neuronal networks

Cogn Neurodyn. 2009 Sep;3(3):189-96. doi: 10.1007/s11571-009-9087-z. Epub 2009 Jun 28.


The cerebral cortex presents itself as a distributed dynamical system with the characteristics of a small world network. The neuronal correlates of cognitive and executive processes often appear to consist of the coordinated activity of large assemblies of widely distributed neurons. These features require mechanisms for the selective routing of signals across densely interconnected networks, the flexible and context dependent binding of neuronal groups into functionally coherent assemblies and the task and attention dependent integration of subsystems. In order to implement these mechanisms, it is proposed that neuronal responses should convey two orthogonal messages in parallel. They should indicate (1) the presence of the feature to which they are tuned and (2) with which other neurons (specific target cells or members of a coherent assembly) they are communicating. The first message is encoded in the discharge frequency of the neurons (rate code) and it is proposed that the second message is contained in the precise timing relationships between individual spikes of distributed neurons (temporal code). It is further proposed that these precise timing relations are established either by the timing of external events (stimulus locking) or by internal timing mechanisms. The latter are assumed to consist of an oscillatory modulation of neuronal responses in different frequency bands that cover a broad frequency range from <2 Hz (delta) to >40 Hz (gamma) and ripples. These oscillations limit the communication of cells to short temporal windows whereby the duration of these windows decreases with oscillation frequency. Thus, by varying the phase relationship between oscillating groups, networks of functionally cooperating neurons can be flexibly configurated within hard wired networks. Moreover, by synchronizing the spikes emitted by neuronal populations, the saliency of their responses can be enhanced due to the coincidence sensitivity of receiving neurons in very much the same way as can be achieved by increasing the discharge rate. Experimental evidence will be reviewed in support of the coexistence of rate and temporal codes. Evidence will also be provided that disturbances of temporal coding mechanisms are likely to be one of the pathophysiological mechanisms in schizophrenia.