Caruso VC, Mohl JT, Glynn C, et al. Single neurons may encode simultaneous stimuli by switching between activity patterns. Nature Communications. 2018;9(1):2715. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-05121-8.
How the brain preserves information about multiple simultaneous items is poorly understood. We report that single neurons can represent multiple stimuli by interleaving signals across time. We record single units in an auditory region, the inferior colliculus, while monkeys localize 1 or 2 simultaneous sounds. During dual-sound trials, we find that some neurons fluctuate between firing rates observed for each single sound, either on a whole-trial or on a sub-trial timescale. These fluctuations are correlated in pairs of neurons, can be predicted by the state of local field potentials prior to sound onset, and, in one monkey, can predict which sound will be reported first. We find corroborating evidence of fluctuating activity patterns in a separate dataset involving responses of inferotemporal cortex neurons to multiple visual stimuli. Alternation between activity patterns corresponding to each of multiple items may therefore be a general strategy to enhance the brain processing capacity, potentially linking such disparate phenomena as variable neural firing, neural oscillations, and limits in attentional/memory capacity.