Population responses of cortical neurons encode considerable details about sensory stimuli, and the encoded information is likely to change with stimulus context and behavioral conditions. The details of encoding are difficult to discern across large sets of single neuron data because of the complexity of naturally occurring stimulus features and cortical receptive fields. To overcome this problem, we used the method of stimulus reconstruction to study how complex sounds are encoded in primary auditory cortex (AI). This method uses a linear spectro-temporal model to map neural population responses to an estimate of the stimulus spectrogram, thereby enabling a direct comparison between the original stimulus and its reconstruction. By assessing the fidelity of such reconstructions from responses to modulated noise stimuli, we estimated the range over which AI neurons can faithfully encode spectro-temporal features. For stimuli containing statistical regularities (typical of those found in complex natural sounds), we found that knowledge of these regularities substantially improves reconstruction accuracy over reconstructions that do not take advantage of this prior knowledge. Finally, contrasting stimulus reconstructions under different behavioral states showed a novel view of the rapid changes in spectro-temporal response properties induced by attentional and motivational state.
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