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Neural computation of behaviorally relevant stimuli


One influential contribution of computational neuroscience has been to emphasize the connection between the statistics of sensory stimuli and the design of the respective sensory systems. Although the importance of using natural stimuli for probing neural responses is well recognized, the term is often used very broadly to include all stimuli that are not entirely artificial. On a closer look, the specific way an animal moves and interacts with its specific environment creates natural stimuli with statistics that is species specific. Obviously, only a subset of stimuli of the full species-specific stimulus set is relevant for behavioral decisions of the animal. Determining what parts of the full stimulus set are behaviorally relevant is a highly non-trivial task that requires interrogating the animals under natural conditions. The results of this quest can then be used to probe the nervous system and try to understand mechanisms of sensory processing as well as their evolution.

Our symposium showcases a number of different approaches and sensory systems in which behaviorally relevant natural stimuli have been quantified and/or their implications for neural processing have been investigated. The first four speakers address behaviors related to object detection and sensory flow. Paul Szyszka introduces a rapid coding scheme used by insect olfactory systems for tracking odor plumes. Active echolocation is the topic of the contribution by Yossi Yovel. He investigates how bats sample their environment prior to complex flight maneuvers. Anna Stöckl demonstrates how spatio-temporal filter properties of visual neurons of three species of moth are adapted to their different life styles. Jacob Engelmann shows how sensory flow in the context of active electrolocation can be used to optimize stimulus detection. We conclude the workshop with two talks about communication signals. Julie Elie sheds light on the meaning and processing of the different elements of zebra finch songs. Jörg Henninger presents data on electrosensory scenes experienced by courting weakly electric fish in their natural habitats in the Central American rainforest that raise disturbing questions about our understanding of sensory processing not only in this well-studied system.

Supported by the Centre for Integrative Neuroscience (CIN), Tübingen, Germany.