Using performance-driven deep learning models to understand sensory cortex

In a new perspective piece in Nature Neuroscience, Yamins & Dicarlo (2016) discuss the emerging methodology and initial results in the literature of using deep neural nets with millions of parameters optimised for task performance to explain representations in sensory cortical areas. These are important developments. The authors explain the approach very well, also covering the historical progression toward it and its future potential.  Here are the key features of the approach as outlined by the authors.

(1) Complex models with multiple stages of nonlinear transformation from stimulus to response are used to explain high-level brain representations. The models are “stimulus computable” in the sense of fully specifying the computations from a physical description of the stimulus to the brain responses (avoiding the use of labels or judgments provided by humans).

(2) The models are neurobiologically plausible and “mappable”, in the sense that their components are thought to be implemented in specific locations in the brain. However, the models abstract from many biological details (e.g. spiking, in the reviewed studies).

(3) The parameters defining a model are specified by optimising the model’s performance at a task (e.g. object recognition). This is essential because deep models have millions of parameters, orders of magnitude too many to be constrained by the amounts of brain-activity data that can be acquired in a typical current study.

(4) Brain-activity data may additionally be used to define affine transformations of the model representations, so as to (a) fine-tune the model to explain the brain representations and/or (b) define the relationship between model units and measured brain responses in a particular individual.

(5) The resulting model is tested by evaluating the accuracy with which it predicts the representation of a set of stimuli not used in fitting the model. Prediction accuracy can be assessed at different levels of description:

  1. as the accuracy of prediction of a stimulus-response matrix,
  2. as the accuracy of prediction of a representational dissimilarity matrix, or
  3. as the accuracy of prediction of task-information decodability (i.e. are the decoding accuracies for a set of stimulus dichotomies correlated between model and neural population?).

A key insight is that the neural-predictive success of the models derives from combining constraints on architecture and function.

  • Architecture: Neuroanatomical and neurophysiological findings suggest (a) that units should minimally be able to compute linear combinations followed by static nonlinearities and (b) that their network architecture should be deep with rich multivariate representations at each stage. 
  • Function: Biological recognition performance and informal characterisations of high-level neuronal response properties suggest that the network should perform a transformation that retains high-level sensory information, but also emphasises behaviourally relevant categories and semantic dimensions. Large sets of labelled stimuli provide a constraint on the function to be computed in the form of a lookup table.

Bringing these constraints together has turned out to enable the identification of models that predict neural responses throughout the visual hierarchies better than any other currently available models. The models, thus, generalise not just to novel stimuli (Yamins et al. 2014; Khaligh-Razavi & Kriegeskorte 2014; Cadieu et al. 2014), but also from the constraints imposed on the mapping (e.g. mapping images to high-level categories) to intermediate-level representational stages (Güçlü & van Gerven 2015; Seibert et al. PP2016). Similar results are beginning to emerge for auditory representations.

The paper contains a useful future outlook, which is organised into sections considering improvements to each of the three components of the approach:

  • model architecture: How deep, what filter sizes, what nonlinearities? What pooling and local normalisation operations?
  • goal definition: What task performance is optimised to determine the parameters?
  • learning algorithm: Can learning algorithms more biologically plausible than backpropagation and potentially combining unsupervised and supervised learning be used?

In exploring alternative architectures, goals, and learning algorithms, we need to be guided by the known neurobiology and by the computational goals of the system (ultimately the organism’s survival and reproduction). The recent progress with neural networks in engineering provides the toolbox for combining neurobiologically plausible components and setting their parameters in a way that supports task performance. Alternative architectures, goals, and learning algorithms will be judged by their ability to predict neural representations of novel stimuli and biological behaviour.

The final section reflects on the fact that the feedfoward deep convolutional models currently very successful in this area only explain the feedforward component of sensory processing. Recurrent neural net models, which are also rapidly conquering increasingly complex tasks in engineering applications, promise to address these limitations of the initial studies using deep nets to explain sensory brain representations.

This perspective paper will be of interest to a broad audience of neuroscientists not themselves working with complex computational models, who are looking for a big-picture motivation of the approach and review of the most important findings. It will also be of interest to practitioners of this new approach, who will value the historical review and the careful motivation of each of the components of the methodology.



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