Synaptic plasticity as Bayesian inference

Learning, especially rapid learning, is critical for survival. However, learning is hard: a large number of synaptic weights must be set based on noisy, often ambiguous, sensory information. In such a high-noise regime, keeping track of probability distributions over weights is the optimal strategy. Here we hypothesize that synapses take that strategy; in essence, when they estimate weights, they include error bars. They then use that uncertainty to adjust their learning rates, with more uncertain weights having higher learning rates. We also make a second, independent, hypothesis: synapses communicate their uncertainty by linking it to variability in PSP size, with more uncertainty leading to more variability. These two hypotheses cast synaptic plasticity as a problem of Bayesian inference, and thus provide a normative view of learning. They generalize known learning rules, offer an explanation for the large variability in the size of post-synaptic potentials, and make falsifiable experimental predictions.

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