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Concept# Models of neural computation

Summary

Models of neural computation are attempts to elucidate, in an abstract and mathematical fashion, the core principles that underlie information processing in biological nervous systems, or functional components thereof. This article aims to provide an overview of the most definitive models of neuro-biological computation as well as the tools commonly used to construct and analyze them.
Due to the complexity of nervous system behavior, the associated experimental error bounds are ill-defined, but the relative merit of the different models of a particular subsystem can be compared according to how closely they reproduce real-world behaviors or respond to specific input signals. In the closely related field of computational neuroethology, the practice is to include the environment in the model in such a way that the loop is closed. In the cases where competing models are unavailable, or where only gross responses have been measured or quantified, a clearly formulated model can guide the scientist in designing experiments to probe biochemical mechanisms or network connectivity.
In all but the simplest cases, the mathematical equations that form the basis of a model cannot be solved exactly. Nevertheless, computer technology, sometimes in the form of specialized software or hardware architectures, allow scientists to perform iterative calculations and search for plausible solutions. A computer chip or a robot that can interact with the natural environment in ways akin to the original organism is one embodiment of a useful model. The ultimate measure of success is however the ability to make testable predictions.
The rate of information processing in biological neural systems are constrained by the speed at which an action potential can propagate down a nerve fibre. This conduction velocity ranges from 1 m/s to over 100 m/s, and generally increases with the diameter of the neuronal process. Slow in the timescales of biologically-relevant events dictated by the speed of sound or the force of gravity, the nervous system overwhelmingly prefers parallel computations over serial ones in time-critical applications.

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