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PLoS Comput Biol. 2018 Mar 22;14(3):e1006041. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1006041. eCollection 2018 Mar.

Brain-state invariant thalamo-cortical coordination revealed by non-linear encoders.

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Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University, 3801 University Street, Montreal, QC H3A 2B4, Canada.
École Normale Supérieure, 45 Rue d'Ulm, 75005 Paris, France.


Understanding how neurons cooperate to integrate sensory inputs and guide behavior is a fundamental problem in neuroscience. A large body of methods have been developed to study neuronal firing at the single cell and population levels, generally seeking interpretability as well as predictivity. However, these methods are usually confronted with the lack of ground-truth necessary to validate the approach. Here, using neuronal data from the head-direction (HD) system, we present evidence demonstrating how gradient boosted trees, a non-linear and supervised Machine Learning tool, can learn the relationship between behavioral parameters and neuronal responses with high accuracy by optimizing the information rate. Interestingly, and unlike other classes of Machine Learning methods, the intrinsic structure of the trees can be interpreted in relation to behavior (e.g. to recover the tuning curves) or to study how neurons cooperate with their peers in the network. We show how the method, unlike linear analysis, reveals that the coordination in thalamo-cortical circuits is qualitatively the same during wakefulness and sleep, indicating a brain-state independent feed-forward circuit. Machine Learning tools thus open new avenues for benchmarking model-based characterization of spike trains.

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