Long short-term memory and Learning-to-learn in networks of spiking neurons

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 31 (NeurIPS 2018)

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Guillaume Bellec, Darjan Salaj, Anand Subramoney, Robert Legenstein, Wolfgang Maass


Recurrent networks of spiking neurons (RSNNs) underlie the astounding computing and learning capabilities of the brain. But computing and learning capabilities of RSNN models have remained poor, at least in comparison with ANNs. We address two possible reasons for that. One is that RSNNs in the brain are not randomly connected or designed according to simple rules, and they do not start learning as a tabula rasa network. Rather, RSNNs in the brain were optimized for their tasks through evolution, development, and prior experience. Details of these optimization processes are largely unknown. But their functional contribution can be approximated through powerful optimization methods, such as backpropagation through time (BPTT).

A second major mismatch between RSNNs in the brain and models is that the latter only show a small fraction of the dynamics of neurons and synapses in the brain. We include neurons in our RSNN model that reproduce one prominent dynamical process of biological neurons that takes place at the behaviourally relevant time scale of seconds: neuronal adaptation. We denote these networks as LSNNs because of their Long short-term memory. The inclusion of adapting neurons drastically increases the computing and learning capability of RSNNs if they are trained and configured by deep learning (BPTT combined with a rewiring algorithm that optimizes the network architecture). In fact, the computational performance of these RSNNs approaches for the first time that of LSTM networks. In addition RSNNs with adapting neurons can acquire abstract knowledge from prior learning in a Learning-to-Learn (L2L) scheme, and transfer that knowledge in order to learn new but related tasks from very few examples. We demonstrate this for supervised learning and reinforcement learning.