How does the brain encode information? Traditionally, neuroscientists have recognized two types of coding in the brain: rate codes and temporal codes. Temporal coding assigns importance to the precise timing and coordination of action potentials or 'spikes', whereas rate coding does not assign any such importance and says that it is only the 'mean rate' or 'mean frequency' of spikes that matters. A special type of temporal coding is synchrony, whereby the synchronous firing of action potentials by neurons is proposed to encode information.
For many years now, there has been a debate in the neuroscience literature revolving around the significance of temporal coding vs. rate coding for the encoding of neural-based information. Interesting, the debate is better characterized as a pseudo-debate because it is clear that both synchrony and rate codes are being employed, as well as higher-order correlations and syn-fire chains, but no-one really knows what's going on. One idea is that the "attentional spotlight" increases synchrony between neuronal activities, thereby rendering them more effective for driving other neurons. Also, rate codes have been fairly conclusively demonstrated in the first-order sensory neurons.
For additional information, please refer to the following references:
Mikula S and Niebur E. Rate and Synchrony in a Multilayer Feedforward Network of Coincidence Detectors: Analytical Solutions.
Neural Computation. 2005 Apr;17(4) [PDF]
Mikula S and Niebur E. Correlated inhibitory and excitatory inputs to the coincidence detector: Analytical solution. IEEE Transactions on Neural Networks. 2004 Sep;15(5) [PDF]
Mikula S and Niebur E. Synaptic depression leads to nonmonotonic frequency dependence in the coincidence detector.
Neural Computation. 2003 Oct;15(10):2339-58. [PDF]
Mikula S and Niebur E. The Effects of Input Rate and Synchrony on a Coincidence Detector: Analytical Solution.
Neural Computation. 2003 Mar;15(3):539-47. [PDF]
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