Distinct timescales of population coding across cortex

The cortex represents information across widely varying timescales. For instance, sensory cortex encodes stimuli that fluctuate over few tens of milliseconds, whereas in association cortex behavioural choices can require the maintenance of information over seconds. However, it remains poorly understood whether diverse timescales result mostly from features intrinsic to individual neurons or from neuronal population activity. This question remains unanswered, because the timescales of coding in populations of neurons have not been studied extensively, and population codes have not been compared systematically across cortical regions. Here we show that population codes can be essential to achieve long coding timescales. Furthermore, we find that the properties of population codes differ between sensory and association cortices. We compared coding for sensory stimuli and behavioural choices in auditory cortex and posterior parietal cortex as mice performed a sound localization task. Auditory stimulus information was stronger in auditory cortex than in posterior parietal cortex, and both regions contained choice information. Although auditory cortex and posterior parietal cortex coded information by tiling in time neurons that were transiently informative for approximately 200 milliseconds, the areas had major differences in functional coupling between neurons, measured as activity correlations that could not be explained by task events. Coupling among posterior parietal cortex neurons was strong and extended over long time lags, whereas coupling among auditory cortex neurons was weak and short-lived. Stronger coupling in posterior parietal cortex led to a population code with long timescales and a representation of choice that remained consistent for approximately 1 second. In contrast, auditory cortex had a code with rapid fluctuations in stimulus and choice information over hundreds of milliseconds. Our results reveal that population codes differ across cortex and that coupling is a variable property of cortical populations that affects the timescale of information coding and the accuracy of behaviour.

Nature doi: 10.1038/nature23020


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