Neural associative networks with plastic synapses have been proposed as computational models of brain functions and also for applications such as pattern recognition and information retrieval. To guide biological models and optimize technical applications, several definitions of memory capacity have been used to measure the efficiency of associative memory. Here we explain why the currently used performance measures bias the comparison between models and cannot serve as a theoretical benchmark. We introduce fair measures for information-theoretic capacity in associative memory that also provide a theoretical benchmark.

In neural networks, two types of manipulating synapses can be discerned: synaptic plasticity, the change in strength of existing synapses, and structural plasticity, the creation and pruning of synapses. One of the new types of memory capacity we introduce permits quantifying how structural plasticity can increase the network efficiency by compressing the network structure, for example, by pruning unused synapses. Specifically, we analyze operating regimes in the Willshaw model in which structural plasticity can compress the network structure and push performance to the theoretical benchmark. The amount C of information stored in each synapse can scale with the logarithm of the network size rather than being constant, as in classical Willshaw and Hopfield nets (⩽ ln 2 ≈ 0.7). Further, the review contains novel technical material: a capacity analysis of the Willshaw model that rigorously controls for the level of retrieval quality, an analysis for memories with a nonconstant number of active units (where C ⩽ 1/eln 2 ≈ 0.53), and the analysis of the computational complexity of associative memories with and without network compression.

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