The distribution of responses of sensory neurons to ecological stimulation has been proposed to be designed to maximize information transmission, which according to a simple model would imply an exponential distribution of spike counts in a given time window. We have used recordings from inferior temporal cortex neurons responding to quasi-natural visual stimulation (presented using a video of everyday lab scenes and a large number of static images of faces and natural scenes) to assess the validity of this exponential model and to develop an alternative simple model of spike count distributions. We find that the exponential model has to be rejected in 84% of cases (at the p < 0.01 level). A new model, which accounts for the firing rate distribution found in terms of slow and fast variability in the inputs that produce neuronal activation, is rejected statistically in only 16% of cases. Finally, we show that the neurons are moderately efficient at transmitting information but not optimally efficient.

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