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Information theoretic approaches to multidimensional neural computations

  • Author(s): Fitzgerald, Jeffrey D.
  • et al.

Many systems in nature process information by transforming inputs from their environments into observable output states. These systems are often difficult to study because they are performing computations on multidimensional inputs with many degrees of freedom using highly nonlinear functions. The work presented in this dissertation deals with some of the issues involved with characterizing real- world input/output systems and understanding the properties of idealized systems using information theoretic methods. Using the principle of maximum entropy, a family of models are created that are consistent with certain measurable correlations from an input/output dataset but are maximally unbiased in all other respects, thereby eliminating all unjustified assumptions about the computation. In certain cases, including spiking neurons, we show that these models also minimize the mutual information. This property gives one the advantage of being able to identify the relevant input/output statistics by calculating their information content. We argue that these maximum entropy models provide a much needed quantitative framework for characterizing and understanding sensory processing neurons that are selective for multiple stimulus features. To demonstrate their usefulness, these ideas are applied to neural recordings from macaque retina and thalamus. These neurons, which primarily respond to two stimulus features, are shown to be well described using only first and second order statistics, indicating that their firing rates encode information about stimulus correlations. In addition to modeling multi-feature computations in the relevant feature space, we also show that maximum entropy models are capable of discovering the relevant feature space themselves. This technique overcomes the disadvantages of two commonly used dimensionality reduction methods and is explored using several simulated neurons, as well as retinal and thalamic recordings. Finally, we ask how neurons in a network should interact in order to transmit the most information about a stimulus. For uniform or Gaussian inputs the optimal solution is independence, whereas for naturalistic inputs the neurons should couple. The coupling strength is then quantified using a pairwise maximum entropy model

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