Neural code—Neural Self-Information Theory on how cell-assembly code rises from spike time and neuronal variability

Meng Li, Joseph Zhuo Tsien

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


A major stumbling block to cracking the real-time neural code is neuronal variability - neurons discharge spikes with enormous variability not only across trials within the same experiments but also in resting states. Such variability is widely regarded as a noise which is often deliberately averaged out during data analyses. In contrast to such a dogma, we put forth the Neural Self-Information Theory that neural coding is operated based on the self-information principle under which variability in the time durations of inter-spike-intervals (ISI), or neuronal silence durations, is self-tagged with discrete information. As the self-information processor, each ISI carries a certain amount of information based on its variability-probability distribution; higher-probability ISIs which reflect the balanced excitation-inhibition ground state convey minimal information, whereas lower-probability ISIs which signify rare-occurrence surprisals in the form of extremely transient or prolonged silence carry most information. These variable silence durations are naturally coupled with intracellular biochemical cascades, energy equilibrium and dynamic regulation of protein and gene expression levels. As such, this silence variability-based self-information code is completely intrinsic to the neurons themselves, with no need for outside observers to set any reference point as typically used in the rate code, population code and temporal code models. Moreover, temporally coordinated ISI surprisals across cell population can inherently give rise to robust realtime cell-assembly codes which can be readily sensed by the downstream neural clique assemblies. One immediate utility of this self-information code is a general decoding strategy to uncover a variety of cell-assembly patterns underlying external and internal categorical or continuous variables in an unbiased manner.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number236
JournalFrontiers in Cellular Neuroscience
StatePublished - Aug 30 2017


  • Cell assembly
  • Code of silence
  • Neural code
  • Neural computing
  • Neural spike variability
  • Self-information
  • Surprisal code
  • Variability-surprisal

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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