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Many theories of brain function assume that information is encoded and behaviour is controlled through sparse, distributed patterns of activity. It is therefore crucial to place a lower bound on the amount of neural activity that can drive behaviour and to understand how neuronal networks operate within these constraints. We use an all-optical approach to test this lower limit by driving behaviour with targeted two-photon optogenetic activation of small ensembles of L2/3 pyramidal neurons in mouse barrel cortex while using two-photon calcium imaging to record the impact on the local network. By precisely titrating the number of neurons in activated ensembles we demonstrate that the lower bound for detection of cortical activity is ~14 pyramidal neurons. We show that there is a very steep sigmoidal relationship between the number of activated neurons and behavioural output, saturating at only ~37 neurons, and that this relationship can shift with learning. By simultaneously measuring activity in the local network, we show that the activation of stimulated ensembles is balanced by the suppression of neighbouring neurons. This surprising behavioural sensitivity in the face of potent network suppression supports the sparse coding hypothesis and suggests that perception of cortical activity balances a trade-off between minimizing the impact of noise while efficiently detecting relevant signals.

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mouse, neuroscience