Biological Cybernetics

, Volume 108, Issue 3, pp 305–320 | Cite as

Equilibrating errors: reliable estimation of information transmission rates in biological systems with spectral analysis-based methods

  • Irina Ignatova
  • Andrew S. French
  • Esa-Ville Immonen
  • Roman Frolov
  • Matti Weckström
Original Paper


Shannon’s seminal approach to estimating information capacity is widely used to quantify information processing by biological systems. However, the Shannon information theory, which is based on power spectrum estimation, necessarily contains two sources of error: time delay bias error and random error. These errors are particularly important for systems with relatively large time delay values and for responses of limited duration, as is often the case in experimental work. The window function type and size chosen, as well as the values of inherent delays cause changes in both the delay bias and random errors, with possibly strong effect on the estimates of system properties. Here, we investigated the properties of these errors using white-noise simulations and analysis of experimental photoreceptor responses to naturalistic and white-noise light contrasts. Photoreceptors were used from several insect species, each characterized by different visual performance, behavior, and ecology. We show that the effect of random error on the spectral estimates of photoreceptor performance (gain, coherence, signal-to-noise ratio, Shannon information rate) is opposite to that of the time delay bias error: the former overestimates information rate, while the latter underestimates it. We propose a new algorithm for reducing the impact of time delay bias error and random error, based on discovering, and then using that size of window, at which the absolute values of these errors are equal and opposite, thus cancelling each other, allowing minimally biased measurement of neural coding.


Random error Time delay bias error Welch’s method Shannon theory Sensory systems Photoreceptor performance 



We thank Jouni Takalo for help with programming. The work was supported by grants from The Academy of Finland to M.W., and R.F, and by Sigrid Juselius Foundation to M.W. and A.S.F.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Irina Ignatova
    • 1
  • Andrew S. French
    • 2
  • Esa-Ville Immonen
    • 1
  • Roman Frolov
    • 1
  • Matti Weckström
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhysicsUniversity of OuluOuluFinland
  2. 2.Department of Physiology and BiophysicsDalhousie UniversityHalifaxCanada

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