Encoding surprise by retinal ganglion cells

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The efficient coding hypothesis posits that early sensory neurons transmit maximal information about sensory stimuli, given internal constraints. A central prediction of this theory is that neurons should preferentially encode stimuli that are most surprising. Previous studies suggest this may be the case in early visual areas, where many neurons respond strongly to rare or surprising stimuli. For example, previous research showed that when presented with a rhythmic sequence of full-field flashes, many retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) respond strongly at the instance the flash sequence stops, and when another flash would be expected. This phenomenon is called the ‘omitted stimulus response’. However, it is not known whether the responses of these cells varies in a graded way depending on the level of stimulus surprise. To investigate this, we presented retinal neurons with extended sequences of stochastic flashes. With this stimulus, the surprise associated with a particular flash/silence, could be quantified analytically, and varied in a graded manner depending on the previous sequences of flashes and silences. Interestingly, we found that RGC responses could be well explained by a simple normative model, which described how they optimally combined their prior expectations and recent stimulus history, so as to encode surprise. Further, much of the diversity in RGC responses could be explained by the model, due to the different prior expectations that different neurons had about the stimulus statistics. These results suggest that even as early as the retina many cells encode surprise, relative to their own, internally generated expectations.

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