Identifying the optimal stimuli for a sensory neuron is often a difficult process involving trial and error. By analyzing the relationship between stimuli and responses in feedforward and stable recurrent neural network models, we find that the stimulus yielding the maximum firing rate response always lies on the topological boundary of the collection of all allowable stimuli, provided that individual neurons have increasing input-output relations or gain functions and that the synaptic connections are convergent between layers with nondegenerate weight matrices. This result suggests that in neurophysiological experiments under these conditions, only stimuli on the boundary need to be tested in order to maximize the response, thereby potentially reducing the number of trials needed for finding the most effective stimuli. Even when the gain functions allow firing rate cutoff or saturation, a peak still cannot exist in the stimulus-response relation in the sense that moving away from the optimum stimulus always reduces the response. We further demonstrate that the condition for nondegenerate synaptic connections also implies that proper stimuli can independently perturb the activities of all neurons in the same layer. One example of this type of manipulation is changing the activity of a single neuron in a given processing layer while keeping that of all others constant. Such stimulus perturbations might help experimentally isolate the interactions of selected neurons within a network.

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