In many cortical and subcortical areas, neurons are known to modulate their average firing rate in response to certain external stimulus features. It is widely believed that information about the stimulus features is coded by a weighted average of the neural responses. Recent theoretical studies have shown that the information capacity of such a coding scheme is very limited in the presence of the experimentally observed pairwise correlations. However, central to the analysis of these studies was the assumption of a homogeneous population of neurons. Experimental findings show a considerable measure of heterogeneity in the response properties of different neurons.
In this study, we investigate the effect of neuronal heterogeneity on the information capacity of a correlated population of neurons. We show that information capacity of a heterogeneous network is not limited by the correlated noise, but scales linearly with the number of cells in the population. This information cannot be extracted by the population vector readout, whose accuracy is greatly suppressed by the correlated noise. On the other hand, we show that an optimal linear readout that takes into account the neuronal heterogeneity can extract most of this information. We study analytically the nature of the dependence of the optimal linear readout weights on the neuronal diversity. We show that simple online learning can generate readout weights with the appropriate dependence on the neuronal diversity, thereby yielding efficient readout.