Neurons in many brain areas exhibit high trial-to-trial variability, with spike counts that are overdispersed relative to a Poisson distribution. Recent work (Goris, Movshon, & Simoncelli, 2014) has proposed to explain this variability in terms of a multiplicative interaction between a stochastic gain variable and a stimulus-dependent Poisson firing rate, which produces quadratic relationships between spike count mean and variance. Here we examine this quadratic assumption and propose a more flexible family of models that can account for a more diverse set of mean-variance relationships. Our model contains additive gaussian noise that is transformed nonlinearly to produce a Poisson spike rate. Different choices of the nonlinear function can give rise to qualitatively different mean-variance relationships, ranging from sublinear to linear to quadratic. Intriguingly, a rectified squaring nonlinearity produces a linear mean-variance function, corresponding to responses with a constant Fano factor. We describe a computationally efficient method for fitting this model to data and demonstrate that a majority of neurons in a V1 population are better described by a model with a nonquadratic relationship between mean and variance. Finally, we demonstrate a practical use of our model via an application to Bayesian adaptive stimulus selection in closed-loop neurophysiology experiments, which shows that accounting for overdispersion can lead to dramatic improvements in adaptive tuning curve estimation.

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