Probing Real Sensory Worlds of Receivers with Unsupervised Clustering

M. Pfeiffer, M. Hartbauer, A. B. Lang, W. Maass, and H. Römer


The task of an organism to extract information about the external environment from sensory signals is based entirely on the analysis of ongoing afferent spike activity provided by the sense organs. We investigate the processing of auditory stimuli by an acoustic interneuron of insects. In contrast to most previous work we do this by using stimuli and neurophysiological recordings directly in the nocturnal tropical rainforest, where the insect communicates. Different from typical recordings in sound proof laboratories, strong environmental noise from multiple sound sources interferes with the perception of acoustic signals in these realistic scenarios. We apply a recently developed unsupervised machine learning algorithm based on probabilistic inference to find frequently occurring firing patterns in the response of the acoustic interneuron. We can thus ask how much information the central nervous system of the receiver can extract from bursts without ever being told which type and which variants of bursts are characteristic for particular stimuli. Our results show that the reliability of burst coding in the time domain is so high that identical stimuli lead to extremely similar spike pattern responses, even for different preparations on different dates, and even if one of the preparations is recorded outdoors and the other one in the sound proof lab. Simultaneous recordings in two preparations exposed to the same acoustic environment reveal that characteristics of burst patterns are largely preserved among individuals of the same species. Our study shows that burst coding can provide a reliable mechanism for acoustic insects to classify and discriminate signals under very noisy real-world conditions. This gives new insights into the neural mechanisms potentially used by bushcrickets to discriminate conspecific songs from sounds of predators in similar carrier frequency bands.

Reference: M. Pfeiffer, M. Hartbauer, A. B. Lang, W. Maass, and H. Römer. Probing real sensory worlds of receivers with unsupervised clustering. PLoS ONE, 7(6):e37354. doi:10.1371, 2012.