Differences in Sensitivity to Neural Timing among Cortical Areas
The basic circuitry of auditory, visual, somatosensory and other cortical areas is highly stereotyped (Douglas and Martin, 2004). However, it remains unclear whether this anatomical stereotypy implies functional homogeneity, or whether instead different cortical areas are specialized to process the diverse sensory inputs they receive. Here we have used a two alternative forced choice task to assess modality-specific differences in the ability of rats to exploit precise neuronal timing. We delivered pairs of electrical pulses directly to different areas of cortex to determine the minimum timing differences subjects could detect. By stimulating the cortex directly, we isolated differences due to cortical circuitry rather than to sensory transduction and subcortical processing. Surprisingly, the minimum detectable timing differences varied over more than an order of magnitude, ranging from 1 ms in barrel cortex to 15 ms in visual cortex. Furthermore, these modality-specific differences depended upon sensory experience: although animals subjected to whisker clipping initially showed an impaired ability to exploit fine timing in barrel cortical stimulation, behavioral training partially rescued this deficit. Our results suggest that different cortical areas are adapted to the specific structure of the input signals they process, and that precise spike timing may play a more important role for some cortical areas than for others.