Comparison of latency and rate coding for the direction of whisker deflection in the subcortical somatosensory pathway

Riccardo Storchi, Michael Bale, Gabriele E M Biella, Rasmus Petersen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The response of many neurons in the whisker somatosensory system depends on the direction in which a whisker is deflected. Although it is known that the spike count conveys information about this parameter, it is not known how important spike timing might be. The aim of this study was to compare neural codes based on spike count and first-spike latency, respectively. We extracellularly recorded single units from either the rat trigeminal ganglion (primary sensory afferents) or ventroposteromedial (VPM) thalamic nucleus in response to deflection in different directions and quantified alternative neural codes using mutual information. We found that neurons were diverse: some (58% in ganglion, 32% in VPM) conveyed information only by spike count; others conveyed additional information by latency. An issue with latency coding is that latency is measured with respect to the time of stimulus onset, a quantity known to the experimenter but not directly to the subject's brain. We found a potential solution using the integrated population activity as an internal timing signal: in this way, 91% of the first-spike latency information could be recovered. Finally, we asked how well direction could be decoded. For large populations, spike count and latency codes performed similarly; for small ones, decoding was more accurate using the latency code. Our findings indicate that whisker deflection direction is more efficiently encoded by spike timing than by spike count. Spike timing decreases the population size necessary for reliable information transmission and may thereby bring significant advantages in both wiring and metabolic efficiency. © 2012 the American Physiological Society.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberDOI: 10.1152/jn.00921.2011
Pages (from-to)1810-1821
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Neurophysiology
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2012


  • First-spike latency
  • spike timing
  • information theory
  • neural coding


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