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Many theories of brain function propose that activity in sparse subsets of neurons underlies perception and action. To place a lower bound on the amount of neural activity that can be perceived, we used an all-optical approach to drive behaviour with targeted two-photon optogenetic activation of small ensembles of L2/3 pyramidal neurons in mouse barrel cortex while simultaneously recording local network activity with two-photon calcium imaging. By precisely titrating the number of neurons stimulated, we demonstrate that the lower bound for perception of cortical activity is ~14 pyramidal neurons. We find a steep sigmoidal relationship between the number of activated neurons and behaviour, saturating at only ~37 neurons, and show this relationship can shift with learning. Furthermore, activation of ensembles is balanced by inhibition of neighbouring neurons. This surprising perceptual sensitivity in the face of potent network suppression supports the sparse coding hypothesis, and suggests that cortical perception balances a trade-off between minimizing the impact of noise while efficiently detecting relevant signals.

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2-photon imaging, behaviour, cortex, mouse, neural coding, neuroscience, optogenetics, perception