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From dynamics to computations in recurrent neural networks

Abstract : The mammalian cortex consists of large and intricate networks of spiking neurons. The task of these complex recurrent assemblies is to encode and process with high precision the sensory information which flows in from the external environment. Perhaps surprisingly, electrophysiological recordings from behaving animals have pointed out a high degree of irregularity in cortical activity. The patterns of spikes and the average firing rates change dramatically when recorded in different trials, even if the experimental conditions and the encoded sensory stimuli are carefully kept fixed. 
One current hypothesis suggests that a substantial fraction of that variability emerges intrinsically because of the recurrent circuitry, as it has been observed in network models of strongly interconnected units. In particular, a classical study [Sompolinsky et al, 1988] has shown that networks of randomly coupled rate units can exhibit a transition from a fixed point, where the network is silent, to chaotic activity, where firing rates fluctuate in time and across units. Such analysis left a large number of questions unsolved: can fluctuating activity be observed in realistic cortical architectures? How does variability depend on the biophysical parameters and time scales? How can reliable information transmission and manipulation be implemented with such a noisy code? 
In this thesis, we study the spontaneous dynamics and the computational properties of realistic models of large neural circuits which intrinsically produce highly variable and heterogeneous activity. The mathematical tools of our analysis are inherited from dynamical systems and random matrix theory, and they are combined with the mean field statistical approaches developed for the study of physical disordered systems. 
In the first part of the dissertation, we study how strong rate irregularities can emerge in random networks of rate units which obey some among the biophysical constraints that real cortical neurons are subject to. In the second and third part of the dissertation, we investigate how variability is characterized in partially structured models which can support simple computations like pattern generation and decision making. To this aim, inspired by recent advances in networks training techniques, we address how random connectivity and low-dimensional structure interact in the non-linear network dynamics. The network models that we derive naturally capture the ubiquitous experimental observations that the population dynamics is low-dimensional, while neural representations are irregular, high-dimensional and mixed.
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Francesca Mastrogiuseppe. From dynamics to computations in recurrent neural networks. Physics [physics]. Université Paris sciences et lettres, 2017. English. ⟨NNT : 2017PSLEE048⟩. ⟨tel-01820663⟩

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