Skip to main content
  • Poster presentation
  • Open access
  • Published:

From spikes to space: reconstructing features of the environment from spikes alone

A common stimulus reconstruction paradigm involves first computing the receptive fields of recorded neurons (using both spike trains and the presented stimuli), and then using the receptive field information together with neuronal activity in order to "predict" the pattern of stimuli based on local stimulus features. Some brain regions (such as hippocampus) undergo remapping of receptive fields, depending on context. How do downstream neurons integrate the mosaic of individual neuronal responses, with potentially varying receptive fields, to extract global characteristics of presented stimuli?

In rodent dorsal hippocampus spatial information is encoded by place cells, i.e. pyramidal cells that fire in a restricted convex area of the spatial environment, and are mostly silent outside. The receptive fields of individual place cells (place fields) can be thus thought of as small convex domains in a two-dimensional environment. The place fields for the same neurons re-map from one spatial environment to another.

In this work we show how certain global features of a spatial environment can be computed from hippocampal spiking activity alone. In particular, we consider a variety of two-dimensional environments which differ in the number of obstacles (or holes) constraining the region accessible to a freely-foraging rat. Assuming only basic properties of hippocampal place fields, we construct an algorithm that distinguishes between these different environments by computing standard topological invariants (homology groups) from population spiking activity. These invariants precisely determine the numbers of obstacles/holes in the environment – and can be computed without ever using any position-tracking information, or any other feature of the rat's trajectory through space. In particular, we never compute place fields or any other correlations between cell firing and external stimuli.

We tested the algorithm using simulated data, staying as close as possible to physiological parameters seen in real data. For each of five distinct environments, open field and N-obstacle environments for N = 1,..,4, we simulated place cell spike trains corresponding to a random walk. (Place fields in different environments were completely unrelated.) The algorithm correctly identified each environment from the population spiking data. Furthermore, on shuffled data sets, the computed homology groups reflected high-dimensional, non-physical environments. We have thus shown that global features of the spatial environment can be reconstructed from hippocampal place cell spiking activity alone.


This work was supported by the Swartz Foundation.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Vladimir Itskov.

Rights and permissions

Open Access This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Itskov, V., Curto, C. From spikes to space: reconstructing features of the environment from spikes alone. BMC Neurosci 8 (Suppl 2), P158 (2007).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • DOI: