The neuronal encoding of information in the brain

Prog Neurobiol. 2011 Nov;95(3):448-90. doi: 10.1016/j.pneurobio.2011.08.002. Epub 2011 Sep 2.


We describe the results of quantitative information theoretic analyses of neural encoding, particularly in the primate visual, olfactory, taste, hippocampal, and orbitofrontal cortex. Most of the information turns out to be encoded by the firing rates of the neurons, that is by the number of spikes in a short time window. This has been shown to be a robust code, for the firing rate representations of different neurons are close to independent for small populations of neurons. Moreover, the information can be read fast from such encoding, in as little as 20 ms. In quantitative information theoretic studies, only a little additional information is available in temporal encoding involving stimulus-dependent synchronization of different neurons, or the timing of spikes within the spike train of a single neuron. Feature binding appears to be solved by feature combination neurons rather than by temporal synchrony. The code is sparse distributed, with the spike firing rate distributions close to exponential or gamma. A feature of the code is that it can be read by neurons that take a synaptically weighted sum of their inputs. This dot product decoding is biologically plausible. Understanding the neural code is fundamental to understanding not only how the cortex represents, but also processes, information.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Alzheimer Disease / physiopathology
  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Electrophysiological Phenomena
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Information Theory
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Mental Processes / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Nervous System Physiological Phenomena
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Sensation / physiology