Behavioral and Single-Neuron Sensitivity to Millisecond Variations in Temporally Patterned Communication Signals

Publication Type:Journal Article
Year of Publication:2016
Authors:Baker, C. A., Ma, L., Casareale, C. R., Carlson B. A.
Journal:Journal of Neuroscience
Pagination:8985 - 9000
Date Published:Feb-16-20162220

In many sensory pathways, central neurons serve as temporal filters for timing patterns in communication signals. However, how a population of neurons with diverse temporal filtering properties codes for natural variation in communication signals is unknown. Here we addressed this question in the weakly electric fish Brienomyrus brachyistius, which varies the time intervals between successive electric organ discharges to communicate. These fish produce an individually stereotyped signal called a scallop, which consists of a distinctive temporal pattern of ∼8–12 electric pulses. We manipulated the temporal structure of natural scallops during behavioral playback and in vivo electrophysiology experiments to probe the temporal sensitivity of scallop encoding and recognition. We found that presenting time-reversed, randomized, or jittered scallops increased behavioral response thresholds, demonstrating that fish's electric signaling behavior was sensitive to the precise temporal structure of scallops. Next, using in vivo intracellular recordings and discriminant function analysis, we found that the responses of interval-selective midbrain neurons were also sensitive to the precise temporal structure of scallops. Subthreshold changes in membrane potential recorded from single neurons discriminated natural scallops from time-reversed, randomized, and jittered sequences. Pooling the responses of multiple neurons improved the discriminability of natural sequences from temporally manipulated sequences. Finally, we found that single-neuron responses were sensitive to interindividual variation in scallop sequences, raising the question of whether fish may analyze scallop structure to gain information about the sender. Collectively, these results demonstrate that a population of interval-selective neurons can encode behaviorally relevant temporal patterns with millisecond precision.

SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT The timing patterns of action potentials, or spikes, play important roles in representing information in the nervous system. However, how these temporal patterns are recognized by downstream neurons is not well understood. Here we use the electrosensory system of mormyrid weakly electric fish to investigate how a population of neurons with diverse temporal filtering properties encodes behaviorally relevant input timing patterns, and how this relates to behavioral sensitivity. We show that fish are behaviorally sensitive to millisecond variations in natural, temporally patterned communication signals, and that the responses of individual midbrain neurons are also sensitive to variation in these patterns. In fact, the output of single neurons contains enough information to discriminate stereotyped communication signals produced by different individuals.

Short Title:Journal of Neuroscience
Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith