Whether cortical neurons act as coincidence detectors or temporal integrators has implications for the way in which the cortex encodes information—by average firing rate or by precise timing of action potentials. In this study, we examine temporal coding by a simple passive-membrane model neuron responding to a full spectrum of multisynaptic input patterns, from highly coincident to temporally dispersed. The temporal precision of the model's action potentials varies continuously along the spectrum, depends very little on the number of synaptic inputs, and is shown to be tightly correlated with the mean slope of the membrane potential preceding the output spikes. These results are shown to be largely independent of the size of postsynaptic potentials, of random background synaptic activity, and of shape of the correlated multisynaptic input pattern. An experimental test involving membrane potential slope is suggested to help determine the basic operating mode of an observed cortical neuron.

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