Reassessing optimal neural population codes with neurometric functions.
Cortical circuits perform the computations underlying rapid perceptual decisions within a few dozen milliseconds with each neuron emitting only a few spikes. Under these conditions, the theoretical analysis of neural population codes is challenging, as the most commonly used theoretical tool--Fisher information--can lead to erroneous conclusions about the optimality of different coding schemes. Here we revisit the effect of tuning function width and correlation structure on neural population codes based on ideal observer analysis in both a discrimination and a reconstruction task. We show that the optimal tuning function width and the optimal correlation structure in both paradigms strongly depend on the available decoding time in a very similar way. In contrast, population codes optimized for Fisher information do not depend on decoding time and are severely suboptimal when only few spikes are available. In addition, we use the neurometric functions of the ideal observer in the classification task to investigate the differential coding properties of these Fisher-optimal codes for fine and coarse discrimination. We find that the discrimination error for these codes does not decrease to zero with increasing population size, even in simple coarse discrimination tasks. Our results suggest that quite different population codes may be optimal for rapid decoding in cortical computations than those inferred from the optimization of Fisher information.