Many recent generative models make use of neural networks to transform the probability distribution of a simple low-dimensional noise process into the complex distribution of the data. This raises the question of whether biological networks operate along similar principles to implement a probabilistic model of the environment through transformations of intrinsic noise processes. The intrinsic neural and synaptic noise processes in biological networks, however, are quite different from the noise processes used in current abstract generative networks. This, together with the discrete nature of spikes and local circuit interactions among the neurons, raises several difficulties when using recent generative modeling frameworks to train biologically motivated models. In this letter, we show that a biologically motivated model based on multilayer winner-take-all circuits and stochastic synapses admits an approximate analytical description. This allows us to use the proposed networks in a variational learning setting where stochastic backpropagation is used to optimize a lower bound on the data log likelihood, thereby learning a generative model of the data. We illustrate the generality of the proposed networks and learning technique by using them in a structured output prediction task and a semisupervised learning task. Our results extend the domain of application of modern stochastic network architectures to networks where synaptic transmission failure is the principal noise mechanism.

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