Neural representations of even temporally unstructured stimuli can show complex temporal dynamics. In many systems, neuronal population codes show 'progressive differentiation', whereby population responses to different stimuli grow further apart during a stimulus presentation. Here we analysed the response of auditory cortical populations in rats to extended tones. At onset (up to 300 ms), tone responses involved strong excitation of a large number of neurons; during sustained responses (after 500 ms) overall firing rate decreased, but most cells still showed statistically significant rate modulation. Population vector trajectories evoked by different tone frequencies expanded rapidly along an initially similar trajectory in the first tens of milliseconds after tone onset, later diverging to smaller amplitude fixed points corresponding to sustained responses. The angular difference between onset and sustained responses to the same tone was greater than between different tones in the same stimulus epoch. No clear orthogonalization of responses was found with time, and predictability of the stimulus from population activity also decreased during this period compared with onset. The question of whether population activity grew more or less sparse with time depended on the precise mathematical sense given to this term. We conclude that auditory cortical population responses to tones differ from those reported in many other systems, with progressive differentiation not seen for sustained stimuli. Sustained acoustic stimuli are typically not behaviorally salient: we hypothesize that the dynamics we observe may instead allow an animal to maintain a representation of such sounds, at low energetic cost.
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