Large-scale neuronal recording techniques have enabled discoveries of population-level mechanisms for neural computation. However, it is not clear how these mechanisms form by trial-and-error learning. In this article, we present an initial effort to characterize the population activity in monkey prefrontal cortex (PFC) and hippocampus (HPC) during the learning phase of a paired-associate task. To analyze the population data, we introduce the normalized distance, a dimensionless metric that describes the encoding of cognitive variables from the geometrical relationship among neural trajectories in state space. It is found that PFC exhibits a more sustained encoding of the visual stimuli, whereas HPC only transiently encodes the identity of the associate stimuli. Surprisingly, after learning, the neural activity is not reorganized to reflect the task structure, raising the possibility that learning is accompanied by some “silent” mechanism that does not explicitly change the neural representations. We did find partial evidence on the learning-dependent changes for some of the task variables. This study shows the feasibility of using normalized distance as a metric to characterize and compare population-level encoding of task variables and suggests further directions to explore learning-dependent changes in the neural circuits.
With the development of experimental techniques for recording the activity of a large number of neurons, researchers have started exploring the possibility that the collective dynamics of interacting populations of neurons form basic units for some neural computations (Sussillo, 2014). The collective dynamics are usually described by neural trajectories in state space, which represent firing rates evolving through time. By looking at the collective neural dynamics through the lens of dynamical systems, several studies have identified cognitive functions with familiar concepts in dynamical systems. For example, in Mante, Sussillo, Shenoy, and Newsome (2013), it was shown that the monkey prefrontal network performed a context-dependent decision-making task by forming a pair of line attractors for the two contexts (Mante et al., 2013). In Remington, Narain, Hosseini, and Jazayeri (2018), the authors showed that, in an interval production task, monkey frontal cortex circuits encoded the information about the time interval to be reproduced in the initial condition of the neural population dynamics, and the neural dynamics for different reproduced time intervals were represented by parallel neural trajectories with different speeds (Remington et al., 2018).
Despite great progress in revealing collective functional features in neural computation, it remains unclear how these collective features are formed during training. Although it has been shown that similar features are present in recurrent neural networks trained on the same task by backpropagation, the learning dynamics of these recurrent neural networks are likely to differ from real neural circuits. To elucidate the solutions to this problem, one should look at how population dynamics change during the learning phase of a task. There exist studies that look at population-level changes during motor learning (Golub et al., 2018; Vyas et al., 2018; Sadtler et al., 2014), but similar work for cognitive learning has been scarce (although see Durstewitz, Vittoz, Floresco, & Seamans, 2010). In this article, we present an initial effort to characterize population-level dynamics during the learning phase of a cognitive task.
The task we analyzed is a paired-associate task where a monkey learned associations between a pair of randomly chosen visual stimuli (cues) and a third visual stimulus (associate). We are interested in the type of changes in the population activity that correlate with learning in this task. For analysis of the neural recording data, we introduced a dimensionless metric, which we called normalized distance (ND), that describes the geometric relationships among neural trajectories for different experimental conditions. Unlike decoding methods, ND characterizes the encoding of all task variables in the population based directly on the geometry of the neural code. The dimensionless property of ND also enables comparisons of information in population codes between different learning stages as well as different brain areas. Using this metric, we then compared population-level dynamics between PFC and hippocampus (HPC) as well as across learning stages in terms of the information content in the population codes. Our results reveal a series of differences in the dynamics of the information content between PFC and HPC. Differences in population coding across learning stages are also present, albeit in one of the two animals. These results demonstrate that ND is a robust way of measuring information content in population codes with high temporal resolution in the face of noisy neural data.
Task and Recording
We analyzed neural recording data from a previous study on a paired-associate learning task (Brincat & Miller, 2015). In that study, two macaque monkeys were trained to perform an object paired-associate learning task that required them to learn arbitrary associations between pairs of visual images of objects. On each day, six novel images were chosen. Four of them were randomly assigned as the cue objects, and the other two were assigned as the associate objects. Two random cue objects were then paired with a random associate object, forming a 4:2 mapping from cues to associates (Figure 1A).
The structure of a trial is illustrated in Figure 1B. During each trial, after a 500-msec fixation period, the monkeys were first presented with one of the cue stimuli for 500 msec. Then, after a delay of 750 msec, the monkeys were presented with one of the associate objects for another 500 msec. The monkeys should indicate whether the previous two stimuli are associated with each other by making a saccade to the indicated position on the screen if they match. If the two previous stimuli do not match, the monkeys were required to hold the fixation. After a 250-msec delay, the match stimulus will appear on the screen for 500 msec, after which the monkeys were required to make the saccade to the same position as in the match trial. The monkeys were rewarded with water if the response was correct (Figure 1B).
During each recording session, the monkey must learn novel associations from trial and error. The monkeys were able to learn the associations above chance in all recording sessions (Figure 1C). Microelectrodes were lowered into the lateral PFC and HPC and recorded spikes and local field potential (LFP) signals while the monkeys were performing the paired-associate learning task. Across all sessions, 353 neurons in PFC and 128 neurons in HPC were recorded. During each session, 5–25 neurons were simultaneously recorded in PFC and 5–16 in HPC.
The ways the underlying neural circuit can learn to solve this task can be broadly divided into two categories. It could be that the network develops more similar representations for the cues that belong to the same associate (Figure 1D, Scenario 1), as previously suggested by a single-cell analysis (Brincat & Miller, 2016) as well as results showing categorical representation in PFC (e.g., Roy, Riesenhuber, Poggio, & Miller, 2010; Freedman, Riesenhuber, Poggio, & Miller, 2001). Another possibility is that the landscape of the network dynamics changes with learning, whereas the network responses to cues remain unchanged. In particular, the landscape changes in such a way that, after learning, the network states at the end of the delay corresponding to different associate stimuli are separated by an energy barrier (Figure 1D, Scenario 2). Because of this, subsequent input driven by the associate stimulus is more likely to take them to different final decision states. In this scenario, learning could be facilitated by “silent” mechanisms such as synaptic plasticity (Stokes, 2015; Mongillo, Barak, & Tsodyks, 2008; Bi & Poo, 1998). As will be shown by the analysis using the ND metric, the neural trajectories are not clustered by cue category during the delay interval even after learning, thereby lending support to the second possibility.
In this section, we introduce the metric we used to characterize the information content in a neural population. This metric is computed from distance between neural trajectories in state space but normalized properly to account for the true neural information about task variables. Hence, we named it normalized distance (ND). This metric is similar to the one used to characterize the community structure in fMRI data (Schapiro, Turk-Browne, Norman, & Botvinick, 2016), as well as the “abstraction index” used in analyzing electrophysiological data (Bernardi et al., 2019). Both of these metrics and ND describe the community structure of neural states organized by task variables. The metrics used in Schapiro et al. (2016) and Bernardi et al. (2019) are computed by dividing the across-group correlation coefficient or Euclidean distance by the same quantity within a group. The difference between ND and the previous two metrics is that ND is computed on a moment-by-moment basis. Therefore, it reveals the dynamics of the neural information.
When analyzing recordings from a population of neurons, it is often convenient to represent the simultaneous activity of all neurons as a point in a “state space.” A state space is a high-dimensional space where each axis represents the activity (in our case, binned spike counts) of one neuron. Over time, the population dynamics can be represented by a trajectory through the state space.
In the equation above, i and j are indices for neural trajectories and Dij and dij represent the Euclidean distance between neural trajectories i and j when they belong to the same or different task conditions, respectively. xi(t) and xj(t) are population vectors at time t for neural trajectories i and j. Brackets denote averaging, and vertical lines denote the magnitude of a vector.
ND provides a way of computing the information explicitly encoded in the population from the geometry of the neural data. In Equation 1, the numerator is the average variability in the population code induced by the task condition of interest (here, A and B). The denominator is the average variability induced by all the other factors when the task condition of interest is fixed. The variability in the denominator could come from nested task conditions within A and B, trial history, or simply intrinsic neuronal noise. An ND(A, B) greater than 1 indicates that the population code carries information about task condition A versus B, because there is extra variability in the population code caused by the difference between A and B beyond the variability caused by all the other factors. Geometrically, it means that the neural states at time t are clustered according to task conditions A and B. On the other hand, an ND(A, B) close to 1 indicates that the population code does not carry information about A versus B, because the neural states are randomly distributed in the state space.
It is worth emphasizing again that the normalizing part in ND (the denominator in Equation 1) is crucial. A large Euclidean distance between two neural trajectories (the numerator of Equation 1) does not necessarily indicate that the neural population encodes information about the experimental variable. To illustrate this, we simulated two populations of neurons that respond to one of the four cues A1, A2, B1, and B2 (Figure 2) on a given trial. In this case, the four cues are organized by two higher-level “categories” A and B. The first population only has selectivity for the identity of the cues (Figure 2A, cue-selective population). The second population of neurons has selectivity for both the higher-order categories (whether a cue belongs to Category A or B) and the lower-order cue identity (Figure 2B, category-selective population). The firing rate at each time point was simulated as a Gaussian random variable with a time-varying mean. There are equal numbers of neurons with any given selectivity in both populations. We computed the ND between the two categories ND(A, B, t) as well as the raw distance between the neural trajectories for A and B (intergroup distance, the numerator of ND(A, B, t) in Equation 1). As a result, the ND(A, B, t) for the two populations have distinctively different time courses that correlate with their single-cell selectivity for the higher-order variables (Figure 2, center). On the other hand, the intergroup distance between A and B has a similar time course for both populations, showing that the raw distance is not enough to capture the information content in the population (Figure 2, center right).
The neural trajectories used in the computation of ND could be the population activity during a single trial or trial-averaged activity for one task condition. This is largely a practical choice and does not affect the rationale above. For this data set, the neural trajectories represent the trial-averaged neural activity over time for a given task condition.
Comparison with Decoding Accuracy and Single-Cell Percentage of Explained Variance
An alternative way of quantifying the information in the population code is by constructing a pattern classifier to separate neural activity vectors in the state space according to task conditions. However, decoding may miss important geometric properties of the neural states. To show this, we trained a linear discriminant analysis classifier to distinguish between cue category A and B using the two simulated neural populations above. The decoder was trained on 67% of randomly selected trials and tested on the held-out trials. This procedure was repeated 10 times, and the decoding accuracy was averaged. As shown in Figure 2 (rightmost), the decoders for the two populations behave almost identically. They can both decode the cue category perfectly after a certain point in time. Therefore, decoding accuracy can be blind to important geometric characteristics in the neural data.
The form of the ND (Equation 1) also reminds one of single-cell measures such as percentage of explained variance (PEV). However, computing PEV in the case of nested task conditions can be tricky. In the example above, one cannot compute PEV by simply constructing a linear model for the firing rate of individual neurons using all stimuli and category conditions (A1, A2, B1, B2, A, B) as regressors, as these regressors will be correlated. Another way would be to use only the cue category (A, B) as regressors, but in this way, the purely cue-selective neurons would also have nonzero PEV for cue category. One can construct auxiliary regressors as in Brincat and Miller (2016) to balance out the PEVs for different regressors, which is reminiscent of the normalizing term in the computation of ND. However, this technique is hard to generalize to situations when there are unequal numbers of cues that belong to each category, whereas ND is generalizable to any situation involving nested task conditions.
We applied the ND metric introduced above to compute the time evolution of the information encoded in the neural population. We started out by computing the ND for category information (if the cue belongs to Associate A or B) and found that neither PFC nor HPC exhibits sustained above-chance ND for category for all learning stages. This indicates that the neural representations for cues corresponding to the same associate do not become more similar with learning, contrary to what is suggested by one of the hypotheses proposed (Figure 1D, Scenario 1). Therefore, the neural circuit may be employing the learning mechanism where the landscape of the network dynamics is modified with learning (Figure 1D, Scenario 2). Next, the same ND metric is deployed to calculate the information content of other task variables including cue identity, associate identity, decision/movement, and trial outcome.
To look at learning-dependent changes in the neural activity, we divided each learning session into three stages (early, mid, and late) by evenly dividing all trials within a session. Neural trajectories were obtained from condition-averaged firing rates. Firing rates were computed every 1 msec using a box-car moving window with a width of 50 msec. Therefore, there are four neural trajectories during the cue period (four cues) and eight neural trajectories after the associate stimulus is presented (4 cues × 2 associates). A given ND was computed by partitioning all neural trajectories into groups that correspond to each task condition, and then the average across-group distance was divided by the average within-group distance, as detailed in the Normalized Distance section. For all the population analysis, except for the one on trial outcome (see Trial Outcome Encoding section), only sessions where five or more neurons were simultaneously recorded were used in computing ND, and for a given session, only correct trials were included in calculating the condition-averaged response. For the trial outcome analysis, both correct and incorrect trials in all sessions are used. All the analyses were performed using simultaneously recorded neurons. To test which part of the trial the ND is significantly larger than 1, we used a cluster-based permutation test (Maris & Oostenveld, 2007). To perform this test, we first created a data set representing ND at chance level, which is 1 across all time points. The sample size of the chance data set is the same as the actual data. As a first-order test, we computed for each time point a one-sided t test against the chance. The cluster-based permutation test then stipulates a cluster of time points as having an ND significantly larger than chance when the sum of the t statistic within that cluster is larger than 95% of the random shuffles.
Neural Trajectories during the Delay Interval Are Not Clustered by Cue Category
The two hypotheses in the Task and Recording section on how the neural circuits can learn to solve this task make different predictions about the clustering of neural states during the delay interval before and after learning (Figure 1D). Therefore, we started out by investigating whether the information about the cue category was encoded in PFC and HPC. By cue category, we mean whether the cue was paired with associate A′ or B′. We define Cues A1 and A2 to be in Cue Category A and Cues B1 and B2 to be in Cue Category B. The ND between cue categories (denoted by ND(A, B)) was computed according to Equation 1. Different neural trajectories were grouped according to the category of their cues (Figure 3A). Importantly, because there are four task conditions before the associate was presented and eight task conditions after, the grouping of neural trajectories was different before and after the associate was presented as well. Therefore, ND(A, B) was calculated in different ways for the two stages (Figure 3A). According to the discussion above, an ND larger than 1 implies that the population contains information about the category of the cues. On the other hand, an ND close to 1 implies that the population does not carry information about the cue category.
As shown in Figure 3, in PFC, there is intermittent information about the cue category during the cue and delay periods (Figure 3B, left). This might reflect some representation for the cue category. However, this signal is much weaker than the information about cues (compare Figure 4B). Similarly, ND(A, B) for HPC is intermittent for one of the two animals (Figure 3B). These results indicate that the neural representations for cues are not clustered according to the associates they are paired with, even after learning. According to the discussions in the Task and Recording section, this suggests that learning in this task is not reflected in the changes of neural representation for cues (Figure 1D, Scenario 1) but might be facilitated by the changes in the synaptic weights of the neural network (Stokes, 2015; Mongillo et al., 2008; Bi & Poo, 1998) such that the landscape of the network dynamics is gradually reshaped during learning (Figure 1D, Scenario 2).
Normalized Distance for Other Task Variables
We next looked at the encoding of other task variables using the same ND metric (see ND section), including the identity of the cues (A1 vs. A2 vs. B1 vs. B2), associates (A′ vs. B′), decision/movement preparation (match vs. nonmatch),1 and trial outcome. We found that PFC populations encode the identity of the cue and associate stimuli in a sustained fashion, whereas HPC has a more transient encoding of the cue and the associate. Only the HPC population in one of the two animals shows a significant encoding of the cues. In one of the two monkeys, the PFC population also shows a slowly ramping decision/movement information at the end of the trial. Moreover, the outcome of the previous trial is encoded by both PFC and HPC populations for seconds during the intertrial interval. In the subsequent sections, the time evolution of ND for each task variable across learning stages and brain areas will be presented in turn.
The ND between the four cue stimuli was computed as a function of time. The normalization factor in Equation 1 was calculated from the distances between trajectories encoding the same cue but different associate stimuli (Figure 4A). Figure 4 shows the ND among cues as a function of time. In PFC for both monkeys and HPC for Monkey J, ND (cues) rapidly goes up when the cue is presented at t = 500 msec, reflecting the encoding of the cue information at stimulus presentation. The information about the cues then gradually decays to baseline and rapidly decreases after the subsequent stimulus (associate) is presented. Notably, the ND for PFC has a more sustained dynamics than HPC. This implies that the network timescale in PFC may be longer than that in HPC. There are no significant learning-dependent changes in ND for both PFC and HPC during the cue period (Figure 4B, Mann–Whitney U test). Overall, the results show that the PFC population carries sustained information about the cues. The HPC population in one of the two animals shows significant but more transient encoding of the cues.
The ND between the two associate stimuli, ND (A′, B′) was computed as in Equation 1, where the denominator is the average distance between neural trajectories encoding the same associate stimulus but different cue stimuli (Figure 5A). The ND was only computed after the associate was presented. As shown in Figure 5, the ND between the two associates (A′ vs. B′) rapidly increases when the associate is presented (t = 1750 msec). Similar to cue encoding, the ND in PFC shows sustained information for a longer period than that in HPC (compare Figure 5B, red and blue lines). In addition, we observed an interesting learning-dependent change in the HPC of one of the monkeys: The average ND during the associate presentation period is significantly smaller during the early learning period (the first one third of the session) than the mid (the middle one third) and late (the last one third) learning periods (Figure 5B, rightmost column, Mann–Whitney U test: p = .003 between early and late, p = .01 between early and mid). This possibly reflects some reconfigurations within the HPC circuit that enable it to represent the associate stimulus more strongly with learning.
Decision Variable/Movement Encoding
To investigate the neural signals about the upcoming decision/movement after the monkeys received the sequence of stimuli, we computed the ND between match and nonmatch trials. Because we only looked at correct trials, the decision about match versus nonmatch trials is perfectly confounded with movement preparation. In this experiment, there is no way to look at one of them without the influence of the other.
The ND between match and nonmatch trials is shown in Figure 6. It was calculated by grouping the neural trajectories according to whether it is a match or a nonmatch trial (Figure 6A). In the PFC of one of the monkeys, the ND between match and nonmatch trials starts to ramp up halfway during the second stimulus presentation period when all the information needed to form the decision is present. There is a latency of about 150 msec between the appearance of the associate information in PFC and that of the decision information (Figure 6B). This potentially indicates the time that the monkey took to compare the incoming associate stimulus with the cue stimulus in the working memory. In contrast, in HPC, the ND between match and nonmatch trials fluctuates around 1 until the time of the response saccade (Figure 6B, blue lines). Therefore, HPC does not encode the decision variable during the time when the match/nonmatch decision is presumably being made.
Trial Outcome Encoding
In Brincat and Miller (2015), it was shown that the synchrony between PFC and HPC increases after the trial outcome, potentially serving as the communication signal between the two brain regions to facilitate associative learning. In this section, we computed the ND between the rewarded and nonrewarded trials after the trial outcome (Figure 7A). The information of trial outcome persists for seconds in both PFC and HPC, as measured by an ND that is significantly greater than 1. In PFC, the ND is significantly greater than 1 throughout the 2.8-sec interval we looked at after the trial outcome (Figure 7B, red lines). In HPC, the ND falls back to 1 more quickly, but the information on trial outcome still persists for more than 1 sec (Figure 7B, blue lines). These results show that, aside from the synchronous LFPs between PFC and HPC (Brincat & Miller, 2015), the spiking activity in both regions also carries information about the outcome of the previous trial for seconds after the reward feedback.2
In this article, we developed a new metric called normalized distance (ND) that characterizes neural information in the population code based on the geometric organization of neural trajectories in the state space. We then applied this metric to recordings from a paired-associate learning task (Brincat & Miller, 2015, 2016) to compare the dynamics of the coding of different task variables across learning stages and brain areas (PFC and HPC). We found the following: (1) The PFC population carries information about the identity of both the cue and the associate stimuli. (2) The HPC population carries information about the identity of the associate stimuli. The encoding of the cue stimuli is statistically significant in one of the two monkeys. (3) The PFC population exhibits a longer network timescale for stimulus coding (Figures 4 and 5). (4) The information about the cue category is only intermittent in PFC and in one of the animals in HPC (Figure 3). (5) The information about the previous trial's outcome persists for seconds in both PFC and HPC (Figure 7). We also found other interesting neural signals, albeit only in one of the two monkeys. These include the following: (6) Coding for the associate object increases with learning in HPC but not PFC (Figure 5), and (7) information for decision/movement slowly ramps up in PFC but not HPC (Figure 6).
The results of (3), (6), and (7) above were not reported in the original article (Brincat & Miller, 2015, 2016). In particular, the network timescale for object coding was found to be longer in PFC than HPC, potentially providing suitable temporal dynamics for PFC to integrate incoming information from other cortices. It was indeed reported that single neurons in PFC have, on average, longer time constants than motor areas (Murray et al., 2014).
In the original papers (Brincat & Miller, 2015, 2016), the authors used another metric, bias-corrected PEV, to calculate neural information across learning. They discovered that the object category coding was present in PFC but not HPC (Brincat & Miller, 2015, 2016). We found some evidence that corroborates this finding (Figure 3). However, they also found that the object category coding increased with learning, which we did not find using the ND metric (Figure 3). It could be that the different metrics used caused different results, but it should be noted that learning effects are subtle in this experiment.
There are other studies that reported single-cell activity during associative learning (Suzuki, 2007; Sakai & Miyashita, 1991). These earlier studies used metrics based on single-cell firing rates to correlate with learning performance and experimental conditions. In contrast, in this article, the ND metric we used characterizes the distributed information in the population code.
The ND metric developed in this article serves a similar role as decoding accuracy commonly adopted in analyzing population-level data. In decoding analysis, hyperplanes are constructed that separate training data from different categories as much as possible according to some objective function, and the decoding accuracy reflects how well these hyperplanes separate the held-out test data. It is noted, however, that, in high-dimensional cases where the number of neurons is comparable with the number of data points (as in our case here as well as data obtained by modern large-scale recording techniques), the decoding accuracy can be generically high (Buonomano & Maass, 2009) and thus does not necessarily reflect the underlying geometry of the neural code. It is therefore difficult to interpret results obtained by directly comparing decoding accuracies across different recording sessions. On the other hand, ND is directly computed from the geometrical configuration of the data and therefore can be used regardless of the number of data points compared with the number of dimensions. Thus, ND provides a clear geometrical picture of the underlying neural code, as illustrated using the simulated data in Figure 2.
In this data set, HPC does not encode the category information of the cues that would help predict the upcoming stimuli even after learning. This seems contradictory with the study by Stachenfeld et al. showing that HPC contains a predictive map of the environment (Stachenfeld, Botvinick, & Gershman, 2017), and the study by McKenzie et al. showing rodent HPC population encodes the hierarchical structure of the task (McKenzie et al., 2014). However, the scenario studied by Stachenfeld et al. is a reinforcement learning task in a spatial setting where sensory experience is almost continuous. The task studied by McKenzie et al. also has a spatial component, and the population activity was observed to be largely organized by spatial context. On the other hand, the task we analyzed here is a simple sequential associative learning task. It could be that, in this simple setting, the HPC is not utilized to form more sophisticated relational representations (Eichenbaum, 2017).
The ND is directly calculated from the geometry of neuronal population responses in the state space. Therefore, it provides a characterization of the degree of “tangling” of the underlying neuronal manifolds. Disentangled neuronal manifolds were argued to be crucial in forming a good neuronal representation for higher-level processing (DiCarlo & Cox, 2007). An ND larger than 1 indicates that the neuronal manifolds representing different variables are somewhat disentangled. However, we do note that other geometric properties such as curvature and topology (Bernardi et al., 2019; Chaudhuri, Gerçek, Pandey, Peyrache, & Fiete, 2019) are needed to provide a complete characterization of the neuronal manifold.
Y. L. would like to thank John D. Murray for useful discussions. All authors would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. This work was supported by U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) MURI Award N00014-16-1-2832 (Y. L., M. E. H., and E. K. M.), ONR DURIP Award N00014-17-1-2304 (Y. L., M. E. H., and E. K. M.), and NIMH R37MH087027 (S. L. B. and E. K. M.).
Reprint requests should be sent to Yue Liu, Department of Physics, Boston University, Boston, MA 02215, or via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In this experiment, we cannot tease apart the neural information for decision variable versus general preparation of an upcoming movement.
In this analysis, we did not look at each monkey individually because there are not enough usable data for one of the monkeys.