Balanced Inhibition-Excitation


Another idea that I consider ill-conceived is the notion that neural networks need to have balanced inhibition-excitation. This means that with every rise (or fall) of overall excitation of the network, inhibition has to closely match it.

On the one hand, this looks like a truism: excitation activates inhibitory neurons and therefore larger excitation means larger inhibition, which reduces excitation. However, the idea in the present form stems from neural modeling: conventional neural networks with their uniform neurons and dispersed connectivity easily either stop spiking because of a lack of activity, or spike at very high rates and ‘fill up’ the whole network to capacity. It is difficult to tune them to the space in-between, and difficult to keep them in this space. Therefore it was postulated that biological neural networks face the same problem and that here also excitation and inhibition need to be closely matched.

First of all inhibition is not simple. Inhibitory-inhibitory interactions make the simplistic explanation unrealistic, and the many different types of inhibitory neurons that have evolved again make it difficult to implement the balanced inhibition-excitation concept.

Secondly, more evolved and realistic neural networks do not face the tuning problem, they are resilient even with larger and smaller differences between inhibition and excitation.

Finally, there are a number of experimental findings showing that it is possible to tune inhibition in the absence of tuning excitation. In a coupled negative feedback model this simply means that the equilibrium values change. But some excitatory neurons may evolve strong activity without directly increasing their own inhibition. Inhibition needs not to be uniformly coupled to excitation, if a network can tolerate fairly large fluctuations in excitation.

Ubiquitous interneurons may still be responsible for guarding lower and upper levels of excitation (‘range-control’). This range may still be variably positioned.

In the next post I want to discuss an interesting form of regulation of inhibitory neurons, which also does not fit well  with the concept of balanced inhibition-excitation.


Dopamine and Neuromodulation

Some time ago, I suggested that equating dopamine with reward learning was a bad idea. Why?
First of all, because it is a myopic view of the role of neuromodulation in the brain, (and also in invertebrate animals). There are at least 4 centrally released neuromodulators, they all act on G-protein-coupled receptors (some not exclusively), and they all have effects on neural processing as well as memory. Furthermore there are myriad neuromodulators which are locally  released, and which have similar effects, all acting through different receptors, but on the same internal pathways, activating G-proteins.

Reward learning means that reward increases dopamine release, and that increased dopamine availability will increase synaptic plasticity.

That was always simplistic and like any half-truth misleading.

Any neuromodulator is variable in its release properties. This results from the activity of its NM-producing neurons, such as in locus ceruleus, dorsal raphe, VTA, medulla etc., which receive input, including from each other, and secondly from control of axonal and presynaptic release, which is independent of the central signal. So there is local modulation of release. Given a signal which increases e.g. firing in the VTA, we still need to know which target areas are at the present time responsive, and at which synapses precisely the signal is directed. It depends on the local state of the network, how the global signal is interpreted.

Secondly, the activation of G-protein coupled receptors is definitely an important ingredient in activating the intracellular pathways that are necessary for the expression of plasticity. Roughly, a concurrent activation of calcium and cAMP/PKA (within 10s or so) has been found to be supportive or necessary of inducing synaptic plasticity. However, dopamine, like the other centrally released neuromodulators, acts through antagonistic receptors, increasing or decreasing PKA, increasing or reducing plasticity. It is again local computation which will decide the outcome of NM signaling at each site.

So, is there a take-home message, rivaling the simplicity of dopamine=reward?

NMs alter representations (=thought) and memorize them (=memory) but the interpretation is flexible at local sites (=learn and re-learn).

Dopamine alters thought and memory in a way that can be learned and re-learned.

Back in 1995 I came up with the idea of analysing neuromodulators like dopamine as a method of introducing global parameters into neural networks, which were considered at the time to admit only local, distributed computations. It seemed to me then, as now, that the capacity for global control of huge brain areas (serotonergic, cholinergic, dopaminergic and noradrenergic systems), was really what set neuromodulation apart from the neurotransmitters glutamate and GABA. There is no need to single out dopamine as the one central signal, which induces simple increases in its target areas, when in reality changes happen through antagonistic receptors, and there are many central signals.  Also, the concept of hedonistic reward is badly defined and essentially restricted to Pavlovian conditioning for animals and addiction in humans.

Since the only known global parameter in neural networks at the time occurred in reinforcement learning, some people created a match, using dopamine as the missing global reinforcement signal (Schultz W, Dayan P, Montague PR. A neural substrate of prediction and reward. Science. 1997). That could not work, because reinforcement learning requires proper discounting within a decision tree. But the idea stuck. Ever since I have been upset at this primitive oversimplification. Bad ideas in neuroscience.

Scheler, G and Fellous, J-M: Dopamine modulation of prefrontal delay activity- reverberatory activity and sharpness of tuning curves.  Neurocomputing, 2001.

Scheler, G. and Schumann, J: Presynaptic modulation as fast synaptic switching: state-dependent modulation of task performance. Proceedings of the International Joint Conference on Neural Networks 2003, Volume: 1. DOI: 10.1109/IJCNN.2003.1223347

Theories, Models and Data

In the modern world, a theory is a mathematical model, and a mathematical model is a theory. A theory described in words is not a theory, it is an explanation or an opinion.

The interesting thing about mathematical models is that they go far beyond data reproduction. A theoretical model of a biological structure or process may be entirely hypothetical, or it may use a certain amount of quantitative data from experiments, integrate it into a theoretical framework and ask questions that result from the combined model.

A Bayesian model in contrast is a purely data-driven construct which usually requires additional quantitative values (‘priors’) which have to be estimated. A dynamical model of metabolic or protein signaling processes in the cell assumes only a simple theoretical structure, kinetic rate equations, and then proceeds to fill the model with data (many estimated) and analyses the results. A neural network model takes a set of data and performs a statistical analysis to cluster the patterns for similarity, or to assign new patterns to previously established categories. Similarly, high-throughput or other proteomic data are usually analysed for outliers and variance with statistical significance with respect to a control data set. Graph analysis of large-scale datasets for a cell type, brain regions, neural connections etc. also aim to reproduce the dataset, to visualize it, and to provide quantitative and qualitative measures of the resulting natural graph.
All these methods primarily attempt to reproduce the data, and possibly make predictions concerning missing data or the behavior of a system that is created from the dataset.

Theoretical models can do more.

A theoretical model can introduce a hypothesis on how a biological system functions, or even, how it ought to function. It may not even need detailed experimental data, i.e. experiments and measurements, but it certainly needs observations and outcomes. It should be specific enough to spur new experiments in order to verify the hypothesis.
In contrast to Popper, a hypothetical model should not be easily falsifiable. If that were the case, it would probably be an uninteresting, highly specific model, for which experiments can be easily performed to falsify the model. A theoretical model should be general enough to explain many previous observations and open up possibilities for many new experiments, which support, modify and refine the model. The model may still be wrong, but at least it is interesting.
It should not be easy to decide which of several hypothetical models covers the complex biological reality best. But if we do not have models of this kind, and level of generality, we cannot guide our research towards progress in answering pressing needs in society, such as in medicine. We then have to work with old, outdated models and are condemned to accumulate larger and larger amounts of individual facts for which there is no use. Those facts form a continuum without a clear hierarchy, and they become quickly obsolete and repetitive, unless they are stored in machine-readable format, where they become part of data-driven analysis, no matter their quality and significance. In principle, such data can be accumulated and rediscovered by theoreticians which look for confirmation of a model. But they only have significance after the model exists.

Theories are created, they cannot be deduced from data.

Bad Ideas in Neuoscience

balanced excitation inhibition

dopamine=reward learning

hidden layers

explaining attention by top-down and bottom-up processes

I should collect some more. Why are they bad? Because they are half-truths. There is “something” right about these ideas, but as scientific concepts, the way they are currently defined, I think they are wrong. Need to be replaced.

The LTP/LTD hypothesis of memory storage

In a classical neural network, where storage relies only on synapses, all memory is always present. Synaptic connections have specific weights, and any processing event uses them with all of the memory involved.

It could be of course that in a processing event only small regions of the brain network are being used, such that the rest of the connections form a hidden structure, a reservoir, a store or repository of unused information. Such models exist.

There is a real issue with stable pattern storage of a large number of patterns with a realistic amount of interference in a synaptic memory model. Classification, such as recognition of a word shape can be done very well, but storing 10,000 words and using them appropriately seems difficult. Yet that is still a small vocabulary for a human memory.

Another solution is conditional memory, i.e. storage that is only accessed when activated, which otherwise remains silent. Neurons offer many possibilities for storing memory other than at the strength of a synapse, and it should be worthwhile investigating if any of this may be exploited in a theoretical model.

Neural Coding

To understand neural coding, we have to regard the relationship of synchronized membrane potentials (local field potentials) and the firing of the individual neuron. We have two different processes here, because the firing of the single neuron is not determined simply by the membrane potential exceeding a fixed threshold. Rather, the membrane potential’s fluctuation does not predict the individual neuron’s firing, because the neuron has a dynamic, flexible firing threshold that is determined by its own internal parameters. Also, the membrane potential is subject to synchronization by direct contact between membranes, it is not necessarily or primarily driven by synaptic input or neuronal spiking. Similarly, HahnG2014(Kumar) have noted that membrane synchronization cannot be explained from a spiking neural network.
The determination of an individual neuron’s firing threshold is a highly dynamic process, i.e. the neuron constantly changes its conditions for firing without necessarily disrupting its participation in ongoing membrane synchronization processes. In other words, membrane potential fluctuations are determined by synaptic input as well as local synchronization processes, and spikes depend on membrane potentials filtered by a dynamic, individually adjustable firing threshold.


The model for a neural coding device contains the following:

A neuronal membrane that is driven by synaptic input and synchronized by local interaction (both excitatory and inhibitory)
A spiking threshold with internal dynamics, possibly within an individual range, which determines spiking from membrane potential fluctuations.

In this model the neural code is determined by at least three factors: synaptic input, local synchronization, and firing threshold value. We may assume that local synchronization acts as a filter for signal loss, i.e. it unifies and diminishes differences in synaptic input. Firing thresholds act towards individualization, adding information from stored memory. The whole set-up acts to filter the synaptic input pattern towards a more predictable output pattern.

Local Adjustment of a Biochemical Reaction System

This is an explanation which refers to the paper (Fig.4).

Since the explanation was short at that point, here is a better way to explain it:


The elementary psf results from using the kinetic parameters and executing a single reaction complex, i.e. one backward and one forward reaction. This is the minimal unit we need. For binding reactions this is A+B <->AB (forward kon, backward koff), for enzymatic reactions it is  A+E<->AE->A* and A*->A.(forward kon, backward koff, kcat and kcatd)

But in a system, every reaction is embedded. Therefore the elementary psf is changed. Example:
one species participates in two reactions and binds to two partners. The kinetic rate parameters for the binding reaction is the same, but some amount of the species is sucked up by the other reaction.
Therefore, if we look at the psf, its curve will be different, and we call this the systemic psf. It obviously depends on the collection of reactions, as a matter of fact on the collection of ALL connected reactions, what this psf will look like.

Now in practice, only a limited amount of “neighboring reactions” will have an effect. This has also been determined by other papers, i.e. the observation that local changes at one spot do not “travel” far.
Therefore we can now do a neat trick:

We look at a whole system, and focus in on a single psf, which means a systemic psf. Example:
GoaGTPO binds to AC5Ca and produces GoaGTPAC5Ca. In this system, the binding reaction is very weak. The curve over the range of GoaGTP (~10-30nM) goes from near 0 to maybe 5 nM at most. We may decide or have measured that we want to improve the model at this point. We may use data that indicate a curve going from about 10nM to about 50nM for the same input of GoaGTP (~10-30nM). Good thing is that we can define just such a curve using hyperbolic parameters. We have measured or want to place the curve such that ymax=220, and C=78, n=1.

So now we know what the systemic psf should be, but how do we get there? We adjust the underlying  kinetic rate parameters for this reaction and any neighboring reactions such that this systemic psf results (and the others do not change or very little).
This can  obviously be done by an iterative process

  • adjust the reaction itself first, (change kinetic rates)
  • then adjust every other reaction which has changed,(change kinetic rates)
  • and continue until the new goal is met and all other psfs are still the same.
  • Use reasonable error ranges to define “goal is met” and “psfs are the same”.

Without error ranges, I do not offer a proof that such a procedure will always converge. As a matter of fact I suspect it  may NOT always be possible. Therefore we need reasonable error ranges.
In practice, in most cases I believe 2,3, maybe 4 reactions are all that is affected, everything else will have such small adjustments that it is not worth touching. These functions remain very local. In the example given, only one other reaction was changed at all.

The decisive part is that we can often measure such a systemic psf, such a transfer function somewhere in the system, and therefore independently calibrate the system.

We measure the systemic psf, but we now have a procedure to force the system into matching this new measurement by adjusting kinetic rates, and using the psf parameters to define the intended, adjusted local transfer function.

In many cases, as in the given example, this allows to locally and specifically test and improve the system – this is novel, and it only works because we made the clear conceptual difference between kinetic rate parameters (which are elementary) and systemic psf parameters.

We do not derive kon vs. koff or the precise dynamics in this way.  For a binding reaction it is only the ratio koff/kon (=Kd) that matters, for an enzymatic reaction it is koff/kon and kcat/kcatd. There are multiple solutions. Dynamic matching may filter out which ones match not only the transfer function, but also the timing. This has not been addressed, because it would only be another filtering step.

The procedure outlined for local adjustment of a biochemical reaction system needs to be  implemented,and more experience gained on spread of local adjustments and reasonable error bounds.

AMP and cAMP

When the steady state level of cAMP rises, the AMP:ATP ratio in a cell also increases.

“In cardiomyocytes, β2-AR stimulation resulted in a reduction in ATP production but was accompanied by a rise in its precursor, AMP … The AMP/ATP ratio was enhanced …, which subsequently led to the activation of AMP-activated kinase (AMPK)….Lietal2010(JPhysiol).

This activates AMP kinase, which phosphorylates TSC2 and RAPTOR, a subcomplex of mTORC1, and de-activates mTORC1. mTORC1 is a protein complex that is activated by nutrients and growth factors, and it is of importance in neurodegeneration. Together with PDK1, it activates S6K1, which stimulates protein synthesis by the ribosomal protein S6. S6K1 and mTORC1 are caught in a positive feedback loop.

In other words we have a complex integration of signals that converge on the ribosome in order to influence protein synthesis by sensing energy levels in the cell. Basically, AMPK decreases protein synthesis (mTORc1).

Under optimal physiological conditions, the AMP-to-ATP ratio is maintained at a level of
0.01 (*)

(*) Hardie DG and Hawley SA. AMP-activated protein kinase: the energy
charge hypothesis revisited. Bioessays 23: 1112–1119, 2001..

And here is something entirely different: sensing ph-levels.

“Intracellular acidification, another stimulator of in vivo
cAMP synthesis, but not glucose, caused an increase in
the GTP/GDP ratio on the Ras proteins.” (RollandFetal2002)

So there is a lot that is very interesting about cAMPs connection to cellular state sensing, and mediating between cellular state and protein synthesis.