Within a given brain region, individual neurons exhibit a wide variety of different feature selectivities. Here, we investigated the impact of this extensive functional diversity on the population neural code. Our approach was to build optimal decoders to discriminate among stimuli using the spiking output of a real, measured neural population and compare its performance against a matched, homogeneous neural population with the same number of cells and spikes. Analyzing large populations of retinal ganglion cells, we found that the real, heterogeneous population can yield a discrimination error lower than the homogeneous population by several orders of magnitude and consequently can encode much more visual information. This effect increases with population size and with graded degrees of heterogeneity. We complemented these results with an analysis of coding based on the Chernoff distance, as well as derivations of inequalities on coding in certain limits, from which we can conclude that the beneficial effect of heterogeneity occurs over a broad set of conditions. Together, our results indicate that the presence of functional diversity in neural populations can enhance their coding fidelity appreciably. A noteworthy outcome of our study is that this effect can be extremely strong and should be taken into account when investigating design principles for neural circuits.

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