, Volume 190, Issue 4, pp 257-277

Variability of spike trains and the processing of temporal patterns of acoustic signals—problems, constraints, and solutions

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Object recognition and classification by sensory pathways is rooted in spike trains provided by sensory neurons. Nervous systems had to evolve mechanisms to extract information about relevant object properties, and to separate these from spurious features. In this review, problems caused by spike train variability and counterstrategies are exemplified for the processing of acoustic signals in orthopteran insects. Due to size limitations of their nervous system we expect to find solutions that are stripped to the computational basics. A key feature of auditory systems is temporal resolution, which is likely limited by spike train variability. Basic strategies to reduce such variability are to integrate over time, or to average across several neurons. The first strategy is constrained by its possible interference with temporal resolution. Grasshoppers do not seem to explore temporal integration much, in spite of the repetitive structure of their songs, which invites for ‘multiple looks’ at the signal. The benefits of averaging across neurons depend on uncorrelated responses, a factor that may be crucial for the performance and evolution of small nervous systems. In spite of spike train variability the temporal information necessary for the recognition of conspecifics is preserved to a remarkable degree in the auditory pathway.