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J Neurosci. 2014 Mar 5;34(10):3632-45. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3204-13.2014.

Noise in neural populations accounts for errors in working memory.

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Institute of Neurology, University College London, London, WC1N 3BG, United Kingdom, and Institute of Cognitive and Brain Sciences, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California 94720.


Errors in short-term memory increase with the quantity of information stored, limiting the complexity of cognition and behavior. In visual memory, attempts to account for errors in terms of allocation of a limited pool of working memory resources have met with some success, but the biological basis for this cognitive architecture is unclear. An alternative perspective attributes recall errors to noise in tuned populations of neurons that encode stimulus features in spiking activity. I show that errors associated with decreasing signal strength in probabilistically spiking neurons reproduce the pattern of failures in human recall under increasing memory load. In particular, deviations from the normal distribution that are characteristic of working memory errors and have been attributed previously to guesses or variability in precision are shown to arise as a natural consequence of decoding populations of tuned neurons. Observers possess fine control over memory representations and prioritize accurate storage of behaviorally relevant information, at a cost to lower priority stimuli. I show that changing the input drive to neurons encoding a prioritized stimulus biases population activity in a manner that reproduces this empirical tradeoff in memory precision. In a task in which predictive cues indicate stimuli most probable for test, human observers use the cues in an optimal manner to maximize performance, within the constraints imposed by neural noise.


Poisson noise; divisive normalization; neural gain; population coding; resource; short term memory

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