Navigating the Neural Space in Search of the Neural Code

Neuron. 2017 Mar 8;93(5):1003-1014. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2017.02.019.


The advent of powerful perturbation tools, such as optogenetics, has created new frontiers for probing causal dependencies in neural and behavioral states. These approaches have significantly enhanced the ability to characterize the contribution of different cells and circuits to neural function in health and disease. They have shifted the emphasis of research toward causal interrogations and increased the demand for more precise and powerful tools to control and manipulate neural activity. Here, we clarify the conditions under which measurements and perturbations support causal inferences. We note that the brain functions at multiple scales and that causal dependencies may be best inferred with perturbation tools that interface with the system at the appropriate scale. Finally, we develop a geometric framework to facilitate the interpretation of causal experiments when brain perturbations do or do not respect the intrinsic patterns of brain activity. We describe the challenges and opportunities of applying perturbations in the presence of dynamics, and we close with a general perspective on navigating the activity space of neurons in the search for neural codes.

Keywords: behavior; causation; correlation; neural code; neural manifold; perturbation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Optogenetics / methods