Supragranular layers of sensory cortex are known to exhibit sparse firing. In rodent vibrissal cortex, a small fraction of neurons in layer 2 and 3 (L2/3) respond to whisker stimulation. In this study, we combined whole cell recording and two-photon imaging in anesthetized mice and quantified the synaptic response and spiking profile of L2/3 neurons. Previous literature has shown that neurons across layers of vibrissal cortex are tuned to the velocity of whisker movement. We therefore used a broad range of stimuli that included the standard range of velocities (0–1.2 deg/ms) and extended to a “sharp” high-velocity deflection (3.8 deg/ms). Consistent with previous literature, whole cell recording revealed a sparse response to the standard range of velocities: although all recorded cells showed tuning to velocity in their postsynaptic potentials, only a small fraction produced stimulus-evoked spikes. In contrast, the sharp stimulus evoked reliable spiking in the majority of neurons. The action potential threshold of spikes evoked by the sharp stimulus was significantly lower than that of the spontaneous spikes. Juxtacellular recordings confirmed that application of sharp stimulus to single or multiple whiskers produced temporally precise spiking with minimal trial-to-trial spike count variability (Fano factors equal or close to the theoretical minimum). Two-photon imaging further confirmed that most neurons that were not responsive to the standard deflections responded to the sharp stimulus. Altogether, our results indicate that sparseness in L2/3 cortex depends on the choice of stimulus: strong single- or multiwhisker stimulation can induce the transition from sparse to “dense” population response.
NEW & NOTEWORTHY In superficial layers of sensory cortex, only a small fraction of neurons fire most of the spontaneous and sensory evoked spikes. However, the functional relevance of such “sparse” activity remains unknown. We found that a “dense” population response is evoked by high-velocity micromotions applied to whiskers. Our results suggest that flashes of precisely timed population response on an almost silent background can provide a high capacity for coding of ecologically salient stimuli.
- sparse coding
- postsynaptic potentials
- Fano factor
- two-photon imaging
- AP threshold
- whisker velocity
- Copyright © 2017 the American Physiological Society
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