Cortical discrimination of complex natural stimuli: Can single neurons match behavior?

Le Wang, Rajiv Narayan, Gilberto Graña, Maoz Shamir, Kamal Sen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

81 Scopus citations


A central finding inmanycortical areas is that single neurons can match behavioral performance in the discrimination of sensory stimuli. However, whether this is true for natural behaviors involving complex natural stimuli remains unknown. Here we use the model system of songbirds to address this problem. Specifically, we investigate whether neurons in field L, the homolog of primary auditory cortex, can match behavioral performance in the discrimination of conspecific songs. We use a classification framework based on the (dis)similarity between single spike trains to quantify neural discrimination. We use this framework to investigate the discriminability of single spike trains in field L in response to conspecific songs, testing different candidate neural codes underlying discrimination. We find that performance based on spike timing is significantly higher than performance based on spike rate and interspike intervals. We then assess the impact of temporal correlations in spike trains on discrimination. In contrast to widely discussed effects of correlations in limiting the accuracy of a population code, temporal correlations appear to improve the performance of single neurons in the majority of cases. Finally, we compare neural performance with behavioral performance. We find a diverse range of performance levels in field L, with neural performance matching behavioral accuracy only for the best neurons using a spike-timing-based code.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)582-589
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number3
StatePublished - 17 Jan 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Auditory cortex
  • Behavior
  • Birdsong
  • Discrimination
  • Field L
  • Speech

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience (all)


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