Neural decoding may be formulated as dynamic state estimation (filtering) based on point-process observations, a generally intractable problem. Numerical sampling techniques are often practically useful for the decoding of real neural data. However, they are less useful as theoretical tools for modeling and understanding sensory neural systems, since they lead to limited conceptual insight into optimal encoding and decoding strategies. We consider sensory neural populations characterized by a distribution over neuron parameters. We develop an analytically tractable Bayesian approximation to optimal filtering based on the observation of spiking activity that greatly facilitates the analysis of optimal encoding in situations deviating from common assumptions of uniform coding. Continuous distributions are used to approximate large populations with few parameters, resulting in a filter whose complexity does not grow with population size and allowing optimization of population parameters rather than individual tuning functions. Numerical comparison with particle filtering demonstrates the quality of the approximation. The analytic framework leads to insights that are difficult to obtain from numerical algorithms and is consistent with biological observations about the distribution of sensory cells' preferred stimuli.

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