by Emili Balaguer-Ballester, Ramon Nogueira, Juan M. Abofalia, Ruben Moreno-Bote, Maria V. Sanchez-Vives
Shared neuronal variability has been shown to modulate cognitive processing. However, the relationship between shared variability and behavioral performance is heterogeneous and complex in frontal areas such as the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). Mounting evidence shows that single-units in OFC encode a detailed cognitive map of task-space events, but the existence of a robust neuronal ensemble coding for the predictability of choice outcome is less established. Here, we hypothesize that the coding of foreseeable outcomes is potentially unclear from the analysis of units activity and their pairwise correlations. However, this code might be established more conclusively when higher-order neuronal interactions are mapped to the choice outcome. As a case study, we investigated the trial-to-trial shared variability of neuronal ensemble activity during a two-choice interval-discrimination task in rodent OFC, specifically designed such that a lose-switch strategy is optimal by repeating the rewarded stimulus in the upcoming trial. Results show that correlations among triplets are higher during correct choices with respect to incorrect ones, and that this is sustained during the entire trial. This effect is not observed for pairwise nor for higher than third-order correlations. This scenario is compatible with constellations of up to three interacting units assembled during trials in which the task is performed correctly. More interestingly, a state-space spanned by such constellations shows that only correct outcome states that can be successfully predicted are robust over 100 trials of the task, and thus they can be accurately decoded. However, both incorrect and unpredictable outcome representations were unstable and thus non-decodeable, due to spurious negative correlations. Our results suggest that predictability of successful outcomes, and hence the optimal behavioral strategy, can be mapped out in OFC ensemble states reliable over trials of the task, and revealed by sufficiency complex neuronal interactions.