Light on purpose of inhibitory neurons

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory have developed a new computational model of a neural circuit in the brain, which could shed light on the biological role of inhibitory neurons — neurons that keep other neurons from firing.

The model describes a neural circuit consisting of an array of input neurons and an equivalent number of output neurons. The circuit performs what neuroscientists call a “winner-take-all” operation, in which signals from multiple input neurons induce a signal in just one output neuron.

Using the tools of theoretical computer science, the researchers prove that, within the context of their model, a certain configuration of inhibitory neurons provides the most efficient means of enacting a winner-take-all operation. Because the model makes empirical predictions about the behavior of inhibitory neurons in the brain, it offers a good example of the way in which computational analysis could aid neuroscience.

The researchers will present their results this week at the conference on Innovations in Theoretical Computer Science. Nancy Lynch, the NEC Professor of Software Science and Engineering at MIT, is the senior author on the paper. She’s joined by Merav Parter, a postdoc in her group, and Cameron Musco, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science.

For years, Lynch’s group has studied communication and resource allocation in ad hoc networks — networks whose members are continually leaving and rejoining. But recently, the team has begun using the tools of network analysis to investigate biological phenomena.

“There’s a close correspondence between the behavior of networks of computers or other devices like mobile phones and that of biological systems,” Lynch says. “We’re trying to find problems that can benefit from this distributed-computing perspective, focusing on algorithms for which we can prove mathematical properties.”

Artificial neurology

In recent years, artificial neural networks — computer models roughly based on the structure of the brain — have been responsible for some of the most rapid improvement in artificial-intelligence systems, from speech transcription to face recognition software.

An artificial neural network consists of “nodes” that, like individual neurons, have limited information-processing power but are densely interconnected. Data are fed into the first layer of nodes. If the data received by a given node meet some threshold criterion — for instance, if it exceeds a particular value — the node “fires,” or sends signals along all of its outgoing connections.

Each of those outgoing connections, however, has an associated “weight,” which can augment or diminish a signal. Each node in the next layer of the network receives weighted signals from multiple nodes in the first layer; it adds them together, and again, if their sum exceeds some threshold, it fires. Its outgoing signals pass to the next layer, and so on.

In artificial-intelligence applications, a neural network is “trained” on sample data, constantly adjusting its weights and firing thresholds until the output of its final layer consistently represents the solution to some computational problem.