Flexible information routing in neural populations through stochastic comodulation

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 32 (NeurIPS 2019)

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Caroline Haimerl, Cristina Savin, Eero Simoncelli


Humans and animals are capable of flexibly switching between a multitude of tasks, each requiring rapid, sensory-informed decision making. Incoming stimuli are processed by a hierarchy of neural circuits consisting of millions of neurons with diverse feature selectivity. At any given moment, only a small subset of these carry task-relevant information.
In principle, downstream processing stages could identify the relevant neurons through supervised learning, but this would require many example trials. Such extensive learning periods are inconsistent with the observed flexibility of humans or animals, who can adjust to changes in task parameters or structure almost immediately. Here, we propose a novel solution based on functionally-targeted stochastic modulation. It has been observed that trial-to-trial neural activity is modulated by a shared, low-dimensional, stochastic signal that introduces task-irrelevant noise. Counter-intuitively this noise is preferentially targeted towards task-informative neurons, corrupting the encoded signal. However, we hypothesize that this modulation offers a solution to the identification problem, labeling task-informative neurons so as to facilitate decoding. We simulate an encoding population of spiking neurons whose rates are modulated by a shared stochastic signal, and show that a linear decoder with readout weights approximating neuron-specific modulation strength can achieve near-optimal accuracy. Such a decoder allows fast and flexible task-dependent information routing without relying on hardwired knowledge of the task-informative neurons (as in maximum likelihood) or unrealistically many supervised training trials (as in regression).