Noise is a major concern in circuits processing electrical signals, including neural circuits. There are many factors that influence how noise propagates through neural circuits, and there are few systems in which noise levels have been studied throughout a processing pathway. We recorded intracellularly from multiple stages of a sensory-motor pathway in the locust that detects approaching objects. We found that responses are more variable and that signal-to-noise ratios (SNRs) are lower further from the sensory periphery. SNRs remain low even with the use of stimuli for which the pathway is most selective and for which the neuron representing its final sensory level must integrate many synaptic inputs. Modeling of this neuron shows that variability in the strength of individual synaptic inputs within a large population has little effect on the variability of the spiking output. In contrast, jitter in the timing of individual inputs and spontaneous variability is important for shaping the responses to preferred stimuli. These results suggest that neural noise is inherent to the processing of visual stimuli signaling impending collision and contributes to shaping neural responses along this sensory-motor pathway.
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