Pairwise correlations among spike trains recorded in vivo have been frequently reported. It has been argued that correlated activity could play an important role in the brain, because it efficiently modulates the response of a postsynaptic neuron. We show here that a neuron's output firing rate critically depends on the higher-order statistics of the input ensemble. We constructed two statistical models of populations of spiking neurons that fired with the same rates and had identical pairwise correlations, but differed with regard to the higher-order interactions within the population. The first ensemble was characterized by clusters of spikes synchronized over the whole population. In the second ensemble, the size of spike clusters was, on average, proportional to the pairwise correlation. For both input models, we assessed the role of the size of the population, the firing rate, and the pairwise correlation on the output rate of two simple model neurons: a continuous firing-rate model and a conductance-based leaky integrate-and-fire neuron. An approximation to the mean output rate of the firing-rate neuron could be derived analytically with the help of shot noise theory. Interestingly, the essential features of the mean response of the two neuron models were similar. For both neuron models, the three input parameters played radically different roles with respect to the postsynaptic firing rate, depending on the interaction structure of the input. For instance, in the case of an ensemble with small and distributed spike clusters, the output firing rate was efficiently controlled by the size of the input population. In addition to the interaction structure, the ratio of inhibition to excitation was found to strongly modulate the effect of correlation on the postsynaptic firing rate.

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