The burst coding hypothesis posits that the occurrence of sudden high-frequency patterns of action potentials constitutes a salient syllable of the neural code. Many neurons, however, do not produce clearly demarcated bursts, an observation invoked to rule out the pervasiveness of this coding scheme across brain areas and cell types. Here we ask how identifiable spike- timing patterns have to be to preserve potent transmission of information. Should we expect that neurons avoid ambiguous patterns that are neither clearly bursts nor isolated spikes? We addressed these questions using information theory and compu- tational simulations. By quantifying how information transmission depends on firing statistics, we found that the information transmitted is not strongly influenced by the presence of clearly demarcated modes in the interspike interval distribution, a feature often used to identify the presence of burst coding. Instead, we found that neurons having unimodal interval distributions were still able to ascribe different meanings to bursts and iso- lated spikes. In this regime, information transmission depends on properties of the synapses as well as the length and relative frequency of bursts. Furthermore, we found that common metrics used to quantify burstiness were also unable to predict the degree with which bursts could be used to carry information. Our results provide guiding principles for the implementation of coding strategies based on spike-timing patterns, and show that even unimodal firing statistics can be consistent with a bivariate neural code.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience