Formalizing locality for normative synaptic plasticity models

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 36 (NeurIPS 2023) Main Conference Track

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Colin Bredenberg, Ezekiel Williams, Cristina Savin, Blake Richards, Guillaume Lajoie


In recent years, many researchers have proposed new models for synaptic plasticity in the brain based on principles of machine learning. The central motivation has been the development of learning algorithms that are able to learn difficult tasks while qualifying as "biologically plausible". However, the concept of a biologically plausible learning algorithm is only heuristically defined as an algorithm that is potentially implementable by biological neural networks. Further, claims that neural circuits could implement any given algorithm typically rest on an amorphous concept of "locality" (both in space and time). As a result, it is unclear what many proposed local learning algorithms actually predict biologically, and which of these are consequently good candidates for experimental investigation. Here, we address this lack of clarity by proposing formal and operational definitions of locality. Specifically, we define different classes of locality, each of which makes clear what quantities cannot be included in a learning rule if an algorithm is to qualify as local with respect to a given (biological) constraint. We subsequently use this framework to distill testable predictions from various classes of biologically plausible synaptic plasticity models that are robust to arbitrary choices about neural network architecture. Therefore, our framework can be used to guide claims of biological plausibility and to identify potential means of experimentally falsifying a proposed learning algorithm for the brain.