Spectro-temporal receptive fields (STRFs) are thought to provide descriptive images of the computations performed by neurons along the auditory pathway. However, their validity can be questioned because they rely on a set of assumptions that are probably not fulfilled by real neurons exhibiting contextual effects, that is, nonlinear interactions in the time or frequency dimension that cannot be described with a linear filter. We used a novel approach to investigate how a variety of contextual effects, due to facilitating nonlinear interactions and synaptic depression, affect different STRF models, and if these effects can be captured with a context field (CF). Contextual effects were incorporated in simulated networks of spiking neurons, allowing one to define the true STRFs of the neurons. This, in turn, made it possible to evaluate the performance of each STRF model by comparing the estimations with the true STRFs. We found that currently used STRF models are particularly poor at estimating inhibitory regions. Specifically, contextual effects make estimated STRFs dependent on stimulus density in a contrasting fashion: inhibitory regions are underestimated at lower densities while artificial inhibitory regions emerge at higher densities. The CF was found to provide a solution to this dilemma, but only when it is used together with a generalized linear model. Our results therefore highlight the limitations of the traditional STRF approach and provide useful recipes for how different STRF models and stimuli can be used to arrive at reliable quantifications of neural computations in the presence of contextual effects. The results therefore push the purpose of STRF analysis from simply finding an optimal stimulus toward describing context-dependent computations of neurons along the auditory pathway.
Keywords: Auditory; Context field; Contextual effects; Inhibition; STRF; Spectro-temporal receptive field; Synaptic depression.
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