Task-specific sensory coding strategies are matched to detection and discrimination performance

J Exp Biol. 2018 Mar 27;221(Pt 6):jeb170563. doi: 10.1242/jeb.170563.


The acquisition of sensory information is limited by the neural encoding method used, constraining perceptual abilities. The most relevant aspects of stimuli may change as behavioral context changes, making efficient encoding of information more challenging. Sensory systems must balance rapid detection of a stimulus with perception of fine details that enable discrimination between similar stimuli. Here, we show that in a species of weakly electric fish, Apteronotus leptorhynchus, two coding strategies are employed for these separate behavioral tasks. Using communication signals, we demonstrate a strong correlation between neural coding strategies and behavioral performance on a discrimination task. Extracellular recordings of pyramidal cells within the electrosensory lateral line lobe of alert fish show two distinct response patterns, either burst discharges with little variation between different signals of the same category, or a graded, heterogeneous response that contains sufficient information to discriminate between signals with slight variations. When faced with a discrimination-based task, the behavioral performance of the fish closely matches predictions based on coding strategy. Comparisons of these results with neural and behavioral responses observed in other model systems suggest that our study highlights a general principle in the way sensory systems utilize different neural codes.

Keywords: Communication signals; Detection; Discrimination; Information theory; Neural coding; Weakly electric fish.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Animals
  • Female
  • Gymnotiformes / physiology*
  • Lateral Line System / physiology*
  • Male
  • Pyramidal Cells / physiology*
  • Sensation / physiology