Spike timing is thought to be an important mechanism for transmitting information in the CNS. Recent studies have emphasized millisecond precision in spike timing to allow temporal summation of rapid synaptic signals. However, spike timing over slower time scales could also be important, through mechanisms including activity-dependent synaptic plasticity or temporal summation of slow postsynaptic potentials (PSPs) such as those mediated by kainate receptors. To determine the extent to which these slower mechanisms contribute to information processing, it is first necessary to understand the properties of behaviorally relevant spike timing over this slow time scale. In this study, we examine the activity of CA3 pyramidal cells during the performance of a complex behavioral task in rats. Sustained firing rates vary over a wide range, and the firing rate of a cell is poorly correlated with the behavioral cues to which the cell responds. Nonrandom interactions between successive spikes can last for several seconds, but the nonrandom distribution of interspike intervals (ISIs) can account for the majority of nonrandom multi-spike patterns. During a stimulus, cellular responses are temporally complex, causing a shift in spike timing that favors intermediate ISIs over short and long ISIs. Response discrimination between related stimuli occurs through changes in both response time-course and response intensity. Precise synchrony between cells is limited, but loosely correlated firing between cells is common. This study indicates that spike timing is regulated over long time scales and suggests that slow synaptic mechanisms could play a substantial role in information processing in the CNS.
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