- Peripheral nerves can be stimulated by, e.g., electrical pulses and their responses can be recorded back by using recording electrodes.
- Peripheral nerves generally do not process the signal. However, they can, and likely will, behave in a nonlinear manner, meaning that their transfer characteristics may change over time, depending on the stimulus.
I'll approach this question based on the cochlear implant (CI). In short, these devices are implanted into the inner ear in people with pronounced hearing loss (Fig. 1). CIs stimulate the auditory nerve directly with electrical pulses, thereby bypassing the degenerate hair cells and restoring functional hearing.
The auditory nerve responses elicited by CIs are routinely recorded to assess implant functionality. These recordings are called electrically evoked compound action potential (eCAP) responses (Fig. 2). Basically, one electrode is stimulated and the nerve response is measured by another electrode. All the action potentials of the individual auditory nerve fibers are basically recorded synchronously, resulting in a compound action potential (CAP). This will probably answer your second question, namely yes, nerve responses can be elicited electrically and recorded back with the proper recording setup.
To go back to your first question - nerve responses are nonlinear, as neural responses show adaptation to the stimulation. Basically, nerves get tired of firing after a while. To go back to the CI example; if high rates of electrical stimuli are applied to the inner ear, the auditory nerve shows a slow adaptive behavior, causing the nerve response amplitude to decline slowly over time, this is caused because more and more fibers become less responsive. Then there is a short-term effect caused by refractoriness of individual fibers. A few milliseconds after a fiber has fired, it is unresponsive to a following stimulus. This causes some fibers to skip the stimulus. During a high-rate pulse train, this results in e eCAP to alternatingly have a normal and low amplitude (Fig. 3). This answers your first question, in a nutshell, namely that nerves can alter the input signal for sure. The process of adaptatin is widespread in the periphery, for example all sensory systems show it to some degree. It is, however, not a real processing such as the processing happening in the peripheral retina for example where complex circuitry markedly alters retinal output to the optic nerve.
Fig. 1. Cochlear implant. source: Speech Buddy
Fig. 2. Princple of eCAP recording. source: A.D. Costlow
Fig. 3. eCAP amplitudes during high-rate (900 pulses/s) stimulation of a CI. figure excerpt adapted from: Hughes et al. (2014)
- Hughes et al., Hear Res (2014); 316: 44-56