Weighting neurons by selectivity produces near-optimal population codes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


Perception is produced by "reading out" the representation of a sensory stimulus contained in the activity of a population of neurons. To examine experimentally how populations code information, a common approach is to decode a linearly weighted sum of the neurons' spike counts. This approach is popular because of the biological plausibility of weighted, nonlinear integration. For neurons recorded in vivo, weights are highly variable when derived through optimization methods, but it is unclear how the variability affects decoding performance in practice. To address this, we recorded from neurons in the middle temporal area (MT) of anesthetized marmosets (Callithrix jacchus) viewing stimuli comprising a sheet of dots that moved coherently in 1 of 12 different directions. We found that high peak response and direction selectivity both predicted that a neuron would be weighted more highly in an optimized decoding model. Although learned weights differed markedly from weights chosen according to a priori rules based on a neuron's tuning profile, decoding performance was only marginally better for the learned weights. In the models with a priori rules, selectivity is the best predictor of weighting, and defining weights according to a neuron's preferred direction and selectivity improves decoding performance to very near the maximum level possible, as defined by the learned weights. NEW & NOTEWORTHY We examined which aspects of a neuron's tuning account for its contribution to sensory coding. Strongly direction-selective neurons are weighted most highly by optimal decoders trained to discriminate motion direction. Models with predefined decoding weights demonstrate that this weighting scheme causally improved direction representation by a neuronal population. Optimizing decoders (using a generalized linear model or Fisher's linear discriminant) led to only marginally better performance than decoders based purely on a neuron's preferred direction and selectivity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1924-1937
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Neurophysiology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2019


  • decoding
  • direction
  • marmoset MT
  • population coding
  • visual motion

Cite this