Recent theoretical and experimental studies suggest that in multisensory conditions, the brain performs a near-optimal Bayesian estimate of external events, giving more weight to the more reliable stimuli. However, the neural mechanisms responsible for this behavior, and its progressive maturation in a multisensory environment, are still insufficiently understood. The aim of this letter is to analyze this problem with a neural network model of audiovisual integration, based on probabilistic population coding—the idea that a population of neurons can encode probability functions to perform Bayesian inference. The model consists of two chains of unisensory neurons (auditory and visual) topologically organized. They receive the corresponding input through a plastic receptive field and reciprocally exchange plastic cross-modal synapses, which encode the spatial co-occurrence of visual-auditory inputs. A third chain of multisensory neurons performs a simple sum of auditory and visual excitations.

The work includes a theoretical part and a computer simulation study. We show how a simple rule for synapse learning (consisting of Hebbian reinforcement and a decay term) can be used during training to shrink the receptive fields and encode the unisensory likelihood functions. Hence, after training, each unisensory area realizes a maximum likelihood estimate of stimulus position (auditory or visual). In cross-modal conditions, the same learning rule can encode information on prior probability into the cross-modal synapses. Computer simulations confirm the theoretical results and show that the proposed network can realize a maximum likelihood estimate of auditory (or visual) positions in unimodal conditions and a Bayesian estimate, with moderate deviations from optimality, in cross-modal conditions. Furthermore, the model explains the ventriloquism illusion and, looking at the activity in the multimodal neurons, explains the automatic reweighting of auditory and visual inputs on a trial-by-trial basis, according to the reliability of the individual cues.

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