Thesis defense

Temporal computations in recurrent neural networks

Manuel Beiran (LNC2)
Practical information
03 December 2020


Jaime de la Rocha (Rapporteur - IDIBAPS, Spain)
Julijana Gjorgjieva (Rapporteuse - Max Planck Institute for Brain 
Research, Germany)
Mehrdad Jazayeri (Examinateur - MIT, USA)
Virginie Van Wassenhove (Examinatrice - NeuroSpin, France)
Vincent Hakim (Examinateur - ENS)
Srdjan Ostojic (Directeur de thèse - ENS)


Neural activity in awake animals exhibits a vast range of timescales 
giving rise to behavior that can adapt to a constantly evolving 
environment. How are such complex temporal patterns generated in the 
brain, given that individual neurons function with membrane time 
constants in the range of tens of milliseconds? How can neural 
computations rely on such activity patterns to produce flexible temporal 

One hypothesis posits that long timescales at the level of neural 
network dynamics can be inherited from long timescales of underlying 
biophysical processes at the single neuron level, such as adaptive ionic 
currents and synaptic transmission. We analyzed large networks of 
randomly connected neurons taking into account these slow cellular 
process, and characterized the temporal statistics of the emerging 
neural activity. Our overarching result is that the timescales of 
different biophysical processes do not necessarily induce a wide range 
of timescales in the collective activity of large recurrent networks.

Conversely, complex temporal patterns can be generated by structure in 
synaptic connectivity. In the second chapter of the dissertation, we 
considered a novel class of models, Gaussian-mixture low-rank recurrent 
networks, in which connectivity structure is characterized by two 
independent properties, the rank of the connectivity matrix and the 
number of statistically-defined populations. We show that such networks 
act as universal approximators of arbitrary low-dimensional dynamical 
systems, and therefore can generate temporally complex activity. 
Finally, we investigated how dynamical mechanisms at the network level 
implement flexible sensorimotor timing tasks. We first show that 
low-rank networks trained on such tasks generate low-dimensional 
invariant manifolds, where dynamics evolve slowly and can be flexibly 
modulated. We then identified the core dynamical components and tested 
them in simplified network models that carry out the same flexible 
timing tasks. Overall, we uncovered novel dynamical mechanisms for 
temporal flexibility that rely on minimal connectivity structure and can 
implement a vast range of computations.