Neural responses are variable, even under identical experimental conditions. This variability has predictable structure and can be modulated by sensory input and behaviour. Current methods for characterising neural variability are geared towards sensory coding in the laboratory.
Neural responses are variable: even under identical experimental conditions, single neuron and population responses typically differ from trial to trial and across time. Recent work has demonstrated that this variability has predictable structure, can be modulated by sensory input and behaviour, and bears critical signatures of the underlying network dynamics and computations. However, current methods for characterising neural variability are primarily geared towards sensory coding in the laboratory: they require trials with repeatable experimental stimuli and behavioural covariates. In addition, they make strong assumptions about the parametric form of variability, rely on assumption-free but data-inefficient histogram-based approaches, or are altogether ill-suited for capturing variability modulation by covariates. Here we present a universal probabilistic spike count model that eliminates these shortcomings. Our method builds on sparse Gaussian processes and can model arbitrary spike count distributions (SCDs) with flexible dependence on observed as well as latent covariates, using scalable variational inference to jointly infer the covariate-to-SCD mappings and latent trajectories in a data efficient way. Without requiring repeatable trials, it can flexibly capture covariate-dependent joint SCDs, and provide interpretable latent causes underlying the statistical dependencies between neurons. We apply the model to recordings from a canonical non-sensory neural population: head direction cells in the mouse. We find that variability in these cells defies a simple parametric relationship with mean spike count as assumed in standard models, its modulation by external covariates can be comparably strong to that of the mean firing rate, and slow low-dimensional latent factors explain away neural correlations. Our approach paves the way to understanding the mechanisms and computations underlying neural variability under naturalistic conditions, beyond the realm of sensory coding with repeatable stimuli.