We study the encoding of weak signals in spike trains with interspike interval (ISI) correlations and the signals' subsequent detection in sensory neurons. Motivated by the observation of negative ISI correlations in auditory and electrosensory afferents, we assess the theoretical performance limits of an individual detector neuron receiving a weak signal distributed across multiple afferent inputs. We assess the functional role of ISI correlations in the detection process using statistical detection theory and derive two sequential likelihood ratio detector models: one for afferents with renewal statistics; the other for afferents with negatively correlated ISIs. We suggest a mechanism that might enable sensory neurons to implicitly compute conditional probabilities of presynaptic spikes by means of short-term synaptic plasticity. We demonstrate how this mechanism can enhance a postsynaptic neuron's sensitivity to weak signals by exploiting the correlation structure of the input spike trains. Our model not only captures fundamental aspects of early electrosensory signal processing in weakly electric fish, but may also bear relevance to the mammalian auditory system and other sensory modalities.

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