Synaptic connectivity varies widely across neuronal types. Cerebellar granule cells receive five orders of magnitude fewer inputs than the Purkinje cells they innervate, and cerebellum-like circuits, including the insect mushroom body, also exhibit large divergences in connectivity. In contrast, the number of inputs per neuron in cerebral cortex is more uniform and large. We investigate how the dimension of a representation formed by a population of neurons depends on how many inputs each neuron receives and what this implies for learning associations. Our theory predicts that the dimensions of the cerebellar granule-cell and Drosophila Kenyon-cell representations are maximized at degrees of synaptic connectivity that match those observed anatomically, showing that sparse connectivity is sometimes superior to dense connectivity. When input synapses are subject to supervised plasticity, however, dense wiring becomes advantageous, suggesting that the type of plasticity exhibited by a set of synapses is a major determinant of connection density.
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