Computational analyses have revealed that precisely timed spikes emitted by somatosensory cortical neuronal populations encode basic stimulus features in the rat's whisker sensory system. Efficient spike time based decoding schemes both for the spatial location of a stimulus and for the kinetic features of complex whisker movements have been defined. To date, these decoding schemes have been based upon spike times referenced to an external temporal frame - the time of the stimulus itself. Such schemes are limited by the requirement of precise knowledge of the stimulus time signal, and it is not clear whether stimulus times are known to rats making sensory judgments. Here, we first review studies of the information obtained from spike timing referenced to the stimulus time. Then we explore new methods for extracting spike train information independently of any external temporal reference frame. These proposed methods are based on the detection of stimulus-dependent differences in the firing time within a neuronal population. We apply them to a data set using single-whisker stimulation in anesthetized rats and find that stimulus site can be decoded based on the millisecond-range relative differences in spike times even without knowledge of stimulus time. If spike counts alone are measured over tens or hundreds of milliseconds rather than milliseconds, such decoders are much less effective. These results suggest that decoding schemes based on millisecond-precise spike times are likely to subserve robust and information-rich transmission of information in the somatosensory system.
Keywords: decoding; information theory; neural coding; population coding; somatosensation; spike patterns.