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Title: Model-based analysis of stability in networks of neurons
Author: Panas, Dagmara
ISNI:       0000 0004 7224 6579
Awarding Body: University of Edinburgh
Current Institution: University of Edinburgh
Date of Award: 2017
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Neurons, the building blocks of the brain, are an astonishingly capable type of cell. Collectively they can store, manipulate and retrieve biologically important information, allowing animals to learn and adapt to environmental changes. This universal adaptability is widely believed to be due to plasticity: the readiness of neurons to manipulate and adjust their intrinsic properties and strengths of connections to other cells. It is through such modifications that associations between neurons can be made, giving rise to memory representations; for example, linking a neuron responding to the smell of pancakes with neurons encoding sweet taste and general gustatory pleasure. However, this malleability inherent to neuronal cells poses a dilemma from the point of view of stability: how is the brain able to maintain stable operation while in the state of constant flux? First of all, won’t there occur purely technical problems akin to short-circuiting or runaway activity? And second of all, if the neurons are so easily plastic and changeable, how can they provide a reliable description of the environment? Of course, evidence abounds to testify to the robustness of brains, both from everyday experience and scientific experiments. How does this robustness come about? Firstly, many control feedback mechanisms are in place to ensure that neurons do not enter wild regimes of behaviour. These mechanisms are collectively known as homeostatic plasticity, since they ensure functional homeostasis through plastic changes. One well-known example is synaptic scaling, a type of plasticity ensuring that a single neuron does not get overexcited by its inputs: whenever learning occurs and connections between cells get strengthened, subsequently all the neurons’ inputs get downscaled to maintain a stable level of net incoming signals. And secondly, as hinted by other researchers and directly explored in this work, networks of neurons exhibit a property present in many complex systems called sloppiness. That is, they produce very similar behaviour under a wide range of parameters. This principle appears to operate on many scales and is highly useful (perhaps even unavoidable), as it permits for variation between individuals and for robustness to mutations and developmental perturbations: since there are many combinations of parameters resulting in similar operational behaviour, a disturbance of a single, or even several, parameters does not need to lead to dysfunction. It is also that same property that permits networks of neurons to flexibly reorganize and learn without becoming unstable. As an illustrative example, consider encountering maple syrup for the first time and associating it with pancakes; thanks to sloppiness, this new link can be added without causing the network to fire excessively. As has been found in previous experimental studies, consistent multi-neuron activity patterns arise across organisms, despite the interindividual differences in firing profiles of single cells and precise values of connection strengths. Such activity patterns, as has been furthermore shown, can be maintained despite pharmacological perturbation, as neurons compensate for the perturbed parameters by adjusting others; however, not all pharmacological perturbations can be thus amended. In the present work, it is for the first time directly demonstrated that groups of neurons are by rule sloppy; their collective parameter space is mapped to reveal which are the sensitive and insensitive parameter combinations; and it is shown that the majority of spontaneous fluctuations over time primarily affect the insensitive parameters. In order to demonstrate the above, hippocampal neurons of the rat were grown in culture over multi-electrode arrays and recorded from for several days. Subsequently, statistical models were fit to the activity patterns of groups of neurons to obtain a mathematically tractable description of their collective behaviour at each time point. These models provide robust fits to the data and allow for a principled sensitivity analysis with the use of information-theoretic tools. This analysis has revealed that groups of neurons tend to be governed by a few leader units. Furthermore, it appears that it was the stability of these key neurons and their connections that ensured the stability of collective firing patterns across time. The remaining units, in turn, were free to undergo plastic changes without risking destabilizing the collective behaviour. Together with what has been observed by other researchers, the findings of the present work suggest that the impressively adaptable yet robust functioning of the brain is made possible by the interplay of feedback control of few crucial properties of neurons and the general sloppy design of networks. It has, in fact, been hypothesised that any complex system subject to evolution is bound to rely on such design: in order to cope with natural selection under changing environmental circumstances, it would be difficult for a system to rely on tightly controlled parameters. It might be, therefore, that all life is just, by nature, sloppy.
Supervisor: Hennig, Matthias ; Berdondini, Luca Sponsor: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: neuronal culture ; stability ; sloppiness ; sparsity ; Ising model ; Fisher Information Matrix