Learning in large-scale spiking neural networks

Master's Thesis, 2011

Trevor Bekolay


Learning is central to the exploration of intelligence. Psychology and machine learning provide high-level explanations of how rational agents learn. Neuroscience provides low-level descriptions of how the brain changes as a result of learning. This thesis attempts to bridge the gap between these two levels of description by solving problems using machine learning ideas, implemented in biologically plausible spiking neural networks with experimentally supported learning rules. We present three novel neural models that contribute to the understanding of how the brain might solve the three main problems posed by machine learning: supervised learning, in which the rational agent has a fine-grained feedback signal, reinforcement learning, in which the agent gets sparse feedback, and unsupervised learning, in which the agents has no explicit environmental feedback. In supervised learning, we argue that previous models of supervised learning in spiking neural networks solve a problem that is less general than the supervised learning problem posed by machine learning. We use an existing learning rule to solve the general supervised learning problem with a spiking neural network. We show that the learning rule can be mapped onto the well-known backpropagation rule used in artificial neural networks. In reinforcement learning, we augment an existing model of the basal ganglia to implement a simple actor-critic model that has a direct mapping to brain areas. The model is used to recreate behavioural and neural results from an experimental study of rats performing a simple reinforcement learning task. In unsupervised learning, we show that the BCM rule, a common learning rule used in unsupervised learning with rate-based neurons, can be adapted to a spiking neural network. We recreate the effects of STDP, a learning rule with strict time dependencies, using BCM, which does not explicitly remember the times of previous spikes. The simulations suggest that BCM is a more general rule than STDP. Finally, we propose a novel learning rule that can be used in all three of these simulations. The existence of such a rule suggests that the three types of learning examined separately in machine learning may not be implemented with separate processes in the brain.

Full text links


External link

Supplementary information



University of Waterloo
Waterloo, ON
Master of Mathematics
Master's Thesis


Plain text