Neurons across sensory systems and organisms often display complex patterns of action potentials in response to sensory input. One example of such a pattern is the tendency of neurons to fire packets of action potentials (i.e., a burst) followed by quiescence. While it is well known that multiple mechanisms can generate bursts of action potentials at both the single-neuron and the network level, the functional role of burst firing in sensory processing is not so well understood to date. Here we provide a comprehensive review of the known mechanisms and functions of burst firing in processing of electrosensory stimuli in gymnotiform weakly electric fish. We also present new evidence from existing data showing that bursts and isolated spikes provide distinct information about stimulus variance. It is likely that these functional roles will be generally applicable to other systems and species.
Keywords: burst firing; directional selectivity; envelope; feature detection; neural coding; weakly electric fish.