Linear models of synaptic plasticity provide a useful starting-point for examining the dynamics of neuronal development and learning, but their inherent problems are well known. Models of synaptic plasticity that embrace the demands of biological realism are therefore typically nonlinear. Viewed from a more abstract perspective, nonlinear models of synaptic plasticity are a subset of nonlinear dynamical systems. As such, they may therefore exhibit bifurcations under the variation of control parameters, including noise and errors in synaptic updates. One source of noise or error is the cross-talk that occurs during otherwise Hebbian plasticity. Under cross-talk, stimulation of a set of synapses can induce or modify plasticity in adjacent, unstimulated synapses. Here, we analyze two nonlinear models of developmental synaptic plasticity and a model of independent component analysis in the presence of a simple model of cross-talk. We show that cross-talk does indeed induce bifurcations in these models, entirely destroying their ability to acquire either developmentally or learning-related patterns of fixed points. Importantly, the critical level of cross-talk required to induce bifurcations in these models is very sensitive to the statistics of the afferents’ activities and the number of afferents synapsing on a postsynaptic cell. In particular, the critical level can be made arbitrarily small. Because bifurcations are inevitable in nonlinear models, our results likely apply to many nonlinear models of synaptic plasticity, although the precise details vary by model. Hence, many nonlinear models of synaptic plasticity are potentially fatally compromised by the toxic influence of cross-talk and other sources of noise and errors more generally. We conclude by arguing that biologically realistic models of synaptic plasticity must be robust against noise-induced bifurcations and that biological systems may have evolved strategies to circumvent their possible dangers.

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