In the primate primary visual cortex (V1), the significance of individual action potentials has been difficult to determine, particularly in light of the considerable trial-to-trial variability of responses to visual stimuli. We show here that the information conveyed by an action potential depends on the duration of the immediately preceding interspike interval (ISI). The interspike intervals can be grouped into several different classes on the basis of reproducible features in the interspike interval histograms. Spikes in different classes bear different relationships to the visual stimulus, both qualitatively (in terms of the average stimulus preceding each spike) and quantitatively (in terms of the amount of information encoded per spike and per second). Spikes preceded by very short intervals (3 msec or less) convey information most efficiently and contribute disproportionately to the overall receptive-field properties of the neuron. Overall, V1 neurons can transmit between 5 and 30 bits of information per second in response to rapidly varying, pseudorandom stimuli, with an efficiency of approximately 25%. Although some (but not all) of our results would be expected from neurons that use a firing-rate code to transmit information, the evidence suggests that visual neurons are well equipped to decode stimulus-related information on the basis of relative spike timing and ISI duration.
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