Training deep neural density estimators to identify mechanistic models of neural dynamics

Elife. 2020 Sep 17;9:e56261. doi: 10.7554/eLife.56261.


Mechanistic modeling in neuroscience aims to explain observed phenomena in terms of underlying causes. However, determining which model parameters agree with complex and stochastic neural data presents a significant challenge. We address this challenge with a machine learning tool which uses deep neural density estimators-trained using model simulations-to carry out Bayesian inference and retrieve the full space of parameters compatible with raw data or selected data features. Our method is scalable in parameters and data features and can rapidly analyze new data after initial training. We demonstrate the power and flexibility of our approach on receptive fields, ion channels, and Hodgkin-Huxley models. We also characterize the space of circuit configurations giving rise to rhythmic activity in the crustacean stomatogastric ganglion, and use these results to derive hypotheses for underlying compensation mechanisms. Our approach will help close the gap between data-driven and theory-driven models of neural dynamics.

Keywords: bayesian inference; computational biology; deep learning; mechanistic models; model identification; mouse; neural dynamics; neuroscience; rat; stomatogastric ganglion; systems biology.

Plain Language Summary

Computational neuroscientists use mathematical models built on observational data to investigate what’s happening in the brain. Models can simulate brain activity from the behavior of a single neuron right through to the patterns of collective activity in whole neural networks. Collecting the experimental data is the first step, then the challenge becomes deciding which computer models best represent the data and can explain the underlying causes of how the brain behaves. Researchers usually find the right model for their data through trial and error. This involves tweaking a model’s parameters until the model can reproduce the data of interest. But this process is laborious and not systematic. Moreover, with the ever-increasing complexity of both data and computer models in neuroscience, the old-school approach of building models is starting to show its limitations. Now, Gonçalves, Lueckmann, Deistler et al. have designed an algorithm that makes it easier for researchers to fit mathematical models to experimental data. First, the algorithm trains an artificial neural network to predict which models are compatible with simulated data. After initial training, the method can rapidly be applied to either raw experimental data or selected data features. The algorithm then returns the models that generate the best match. This newly developed machine learning tool was able to automatically identify models which can replicate the observed data from a diverse set of neuroscience problems. Importantly, further experiments showed that this new approach can be scaled up to complex mechanisms, such as how a neural network in crabs maintains its rhythm of activity. This tool could be applied to a wide range of computational investigations in neuroscience and other fields of biology, which may help bridge the gap between ‘data-driven’ and ‘theory-driven’ approaches.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Animals
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Machine Learning*
  • Mice
  • Neural Networks, Computer*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Rats