In the olfactory system, odor percepts retain their identity despite substantial variations in concentration, timing, and background. We study a novel strategy for encoding intensity-invariant stimulus identity that is based on representing relative rather than absolute values of stimulus features. For example, in what is known as the primacy coding model, odorant identities are represented by the conditions that some odorant receptors are activated more strongly than others. Because, in this scheme, odorant identity depends only on the relative amplitudes of olfactory receptor responses, identity is invariant to changes in both intensity and monotonic nonlinear transformations of its neuronal responses. Here we show that sparse vectors representing odorant mixtures can be recovered in a compressed sensing framework via elastic net loss minimization. In the primacy model, this minimization is performed under the constraint that some receptors respond to a given odorant more strongly than others. Using duality transformation, we show that this constrained optimization problem can be solved by a neural network whose Lyapunov function represents the dual Lagrangian and whose neural responses represent the Lagrange coefficients of primacy and other constraints. The connectivity in such a dual network resembles known features of connectivity in olfactory circuits. We thus propose that networks in the piriform cortex implement dual computations to compute odorant identity with the sparse activities of individual neurons representing Lagrange coefficients. More generally, we propose that sparse neuronal firing rates may represent Lagrange multipliers, which we call the dual brain hypothesis. We show such a formulation is well suited to solve problems with multiple interacting relative constraints.

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