A minimum-error, energy-constrained neural code is an instantaneous-rate code

Erik C. Johnson, Douglas L. Jones, Rama Ratnam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Sensory neurons code information about stimuli in their sequence of action potentials (spikes). Intuitively, the spikes should represent stimuli with high fidelity. However, generating and propagating spikes is a metabolically expensive process. It is therefore likely that neural codes have been selected to balance energy expenditure against encoding error. Our recently proposed optimal, energy-constrained neural coder (Jones et al. Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience, 9, 61 2015) postulates that neurons time spikes to minimize the trade-off between stimulus reconstruction error and expended energy by adjusting the spike threshold using a simple dynamic threshold. Here, we show that this proposed coding scheme is related to existing coding schemes, such as rate and temporal codes. We derive an instantaneous rate coder and show that the spike-rate depends on the signal and its derivative. In the limit of high spike rates the spike train maximizes fidelity given an energy constraint (average spike-rate), and the predicted interspike intervals are identical to those generated by our existing optimal coding neuron. The instantaneous rate coder is shown to closely match the spike-rates recorded from P-type primary afferents in weakly electric fish. In particular, the coder is a predictor of the peristimulus time histogram (PSTH). When tested against in vitro cortical pyramidal neuron recordings, the instantaneous spike-rate approximates DC step inputs, matching both the average spike-rate and the time-to-first-spike (a simple temporal code). Overall, the instantaneous rate coder relates optimal, energy-constrained encoding to the concepts of rate-coding and temporal-coding, suggesting a possible unifying principle of neural encoding of sensory signals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)193-206
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Computational Neuroscience
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2016


  • Energy efficient coding
  • Instantaneous rate
  • Rate coding
  • Sensory coding
  • Temporal coding

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sensory Systems
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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