A decline in response variability improves neural signal detection during auditory task performance

Gardiner von Trapp, Bradley N. Buran, Kamal Sen, Malcolm N. Semple, Dan H. Sanes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The detection of a sensory stimulus arises from a significant change in neural activity, but a sensory neuron’s response is rarely identical to successive presentations of the same stimulus. Large trial-to-trial variability would limit the central nervous system’s ability to reliably detect a stimulus, presumably affecting perceptual performance. However, if response variability were to decrease while firing rate remained constant, then neural sensitivity could improve. Here, we asked whether engagement in an auditory detection task can modulate response variability, thereby increasing neural sensitivity.Werecorded telemetrically from the core auditory cortex of gerbils, both while they engaged in an amplitude-modulation detection task and while they sat quietly listening to the identical stimuli. Using a signal detection theory framework, we found that neural sensitivity was improved during task performance, and this improvement was closely associated with a decrease in response variability. Moreover, units with the greatest change in response variability had absolute neural thresholds most closely aligned with simultaneously measured perceptual thresholds. Our findings suggest that the limitations imposed by response variability diminish during task performance, thereby improving the sensitivity of neural encoding and potentially leading to better perceptual sensitivity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11097-11106
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number43
StatePublished - Oct 26 2016


  • Amplitude modulation
  • Attention
  • Auditory cortex
  • Neurometric
  • Signal detection theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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