The functional role of burst firing (i.e. the firing of packets of action potentials followed by quiescence) in sensory processing is still under debate. Should bursts be considered as unitary events that signal the presence of a particular feature in the sensory environment or is information about stimulus attributes contained within their temporal structure? We compared the coding of stimulus attributes by bursts in vivo and in vitro of electrosensory pyramidal neurons in weakly electric fish by computing correlations between burst and stimulus attributes. Our results show that, while these correlations were strong in magnitude and significant in vitro, they were actually much weaker in magnitude if at all significant in vivo. We used a mathematical model of pyramidal neuron activity in vivo and showed that such a model could reproduce the correlations seen in vitro, thereby suggesting that differences in burst coding were not due to differences in bursting seen in vivo and in vitro. We next tested whether variability in the baseline (i.e. without stimulation) activity of ELL pyramidal neurons could account for these differences. To do so, we injected noise into our model whose intensity was calibrated to mimic baseline activity variability as quantified by the coefficient of variation. We found that this noise caused significant decreases in the magnitude of correlations between burst and stimulus attributes and could account for differences between in vitro and in vivo conditions. We then tested this prediction experimentally by directly injecting noise in vitro through the recording electrode. Our results show that this caused a lowering in magnitude of the correlations between burst and stimulus attributes in vitro and gave rise to values that were quantitatively similar to those seen under in vivo conditions. While it is expected that noise in the form of baseline activity variability will lower correlations between burst and stimulus attributes, our results show that such variability can account for differences seen in vivo. Thus, the high variability seen under in vivo conditions has profound consequences on the coding of information by bursts in ELL pyramidal neurons. In particular, our results support the viewpoint that bursts serve as a detector of particular stimulus features but do not carry detailed information about such features in their structure.
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In vivo conditions influence the coding of stimulus features by bursts of action potentials