Does the neuronal noise in cortex help generalization?

One of the hallmarks of the Allen Brain Observatory data is the trial-to-trial variability in neural responses. We analyzed the distribution of responses for each cell’s “preferred” stimulus within a repeated natural movie clip and found that many cells show non-Gaussian noise distributions. We repeated the experiment using electrophysiological recordings and found similar results. We also used a subspace analysis to show that the noise aligns with variations within a movie clip, but not across different movie clips. One possible role for this noise is to help cortex generalize, i.e. to help cortex learn general representations from a small number of examples. This has important implications for understanding computations in cortex, and may also have applications for training artificial neural networks with better generalization abilities.

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