A major open problem in systems neuroscience is to understand the relationship between behavior and the detailed spiking properties of neural populations. We assess how faithfully velocity information can be decoded from a population of spiking model retinal neurons whose spatiotemporal receptive fields and ensemble spike train dynamics are closely matched to real data. We describe how to compute the optimal Bayesian estimate of image velocity given the population spike train response and show that, in the case of global translation of an image with known intensity profile, on average the spike train ensemble signals speed with a fractional standard deviation of about 2% across a specific set of stimulus conditions. We further show how to compute the Bayesian velocity estimate in the case where we only have some a priori information about the (naturalistic) spatial correlation structure of the image but do not know the image explicitly. As expected, the performance of the Bayesian decoder is shown to be less accurate with decreasing prior image information. There turns out to be a close mathematical connection between a biologically plausible “motion energy” method for decoding the velocity and the Bayesian decoder in the case that the image is not known. Simulations using the motion energy method and the Bayesian decoder with unknown image reveal that they result in fractional standard deviations of 10% and 6%, respectively, across the same set of stimulus conditions. Estimation performance is rather insensitive to the details of the precise receptive field location, correlated activity between cells, and spike timing.
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