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A novel, jitter-based method for detecting and measuring spike synchrony and quantifying temporal firing precision

Ariel Agmon

Author Affiliations

Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy and the Sensory Neuroscience Research Center, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV 26506-9303, USA

Neural Systems & Circuits 2012, 2:5  doi:10.1186/2042-1001-2-5

Published: 2 May 2012



Precise spike synchrony, at the millisecond or even sub-millisecond time scale, has been reported in different brain areas, but its neurobiological meaning and its underlying mechanisms remain unknown or controversial. Studying these questions is complicated by the lack of a validated, well-normalized and robust index for quantifying synchrony. Previously used measures of synchrony are often improperly normalized and thereby are not comparable between different experimental conditions, are sensitive to variations in firing rate or to the firing rate differential between the two neurons, and/or rely on untenable assumptions of firing rate stationarity and Poisson statistics. I describe here a novel measure, the Jitter-Based Synchrony Index (JBSI), that overcomes these issues.

Results and discussion

The JBSI method is based on the introduction of virtual spike jitter. While previous implementations of the jitter method used it only to detect synchrony, the JBSI method also quantifies synchrony. Previous implementations of the jitter method used computationally intensive Monte Carlo simulations to generate surrogate spike trains, whereas the JBSI is computed analytically. The JBSI method does not assume any specific firing model, and does not require that the spike trains be locked to a repeating external stimulus. The JBSI can assume values from 1 (maximal possible synchrony) to −1 (minimal possible synchrony) and is therefore properly normalized. Using simulated Poisson spike trains with introduced controlled spike coincidences, I demonstrate that the JBSI is a linear measure of the spike coincidence rate, is independent of the mean firing frequency or the firing frequency differential between the two neurons, and is not sensitive to co-modulations in the firing rates of the two neurons. In contrast, several commonly used synchrony indices fail under one or more of these scenarios. I also demonstrate how the JBSI can be used to estimate the spike timing precision in the system.


The JBSI is a conceptually simple and computationally efficient method that can be used to compute the statistical significance of firing synchrony, to quantify synchrony as a well-normalized index, and to estimate the degree of temporal precision in the system.