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Modeling rodent primary visual cortex using balanced networks with synaptic plasticity
Sadra Sadeh1,2,3 and Claudia Clopath2 and Stefan Rotter1
1Bernstein Center Freiburg and Faculty of Biology, University of Freiburg, Germany 2Bioengineering Department, Imperial College London, London, UK 3Department of Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology, University College London, London, UK

In rodent visual cortex, synaptic connections between orientation-selective neurons are unspecific at the time of eye opening, and become to some degree functionally specific only later during development. An explanation for this two-stage process was proposed in terms of Hebbian plasticity based on visual experience that would eventually enhance connections between neurons with similar response features. For this to work, however, two conditions must be satisfied: First, orientation selective neuronal responses must exist before specific recurrent synaptic connections can be established. Second, Hebbian learning must be compatible with the recurrent network dynamics contributing to orientation selectivity, and the resulting specific connectivity must remain stable for unspecific background activity. Previous studies have mainly focused on very simple models, where the receptive fields of neurons were essentially determined by feedforward mechanisms, and where the recurrent network was small, lacking the complex recurrent dynamics of realistic large-scale networks of excitatory and inhibitory neurons. Here we studied the emergence of functionally specific connectivity in large-scale recurrent networks with synaptic plasticity. Our results show that balanced random networks, which already exhibit highly selective responses at eye opening, can develop feature-specific connectivity if appropriate rules of synaptic plasticity are invoked within and between excitatory and inhibitory populations. If these conditions are met, the initial orientation selectivity guides the process of Hebbian learning and, as a result, functionally specific and a surplus of bidirectional connections emerge. Our results thus demonstrate the cooperation of synaptic plasticity and recurrent dynamics in large-scale functional networks with realistic receptive fields, highlight the role of inhibition as a critical element in this process, and paves the road for further computational studies of sensory processing in neocortical network models equipped with synaptic plasticity.