Biologically plausible learning in recurrent neural networks reproduces neural dynamics observed during cognitive tasks

  1. Thomas Miconi  Is a corresponding author
  1. The Neurosciences Institute, United States


Neural activity during cognitive tasks exhibits complex dynamics that flexibly encode task-relevant variables. Chaotic recurrent networks, which spontaneously generate rich dynamics, have been proposed as a model of cortical computation during cognitive tasks. However, existing methods for training these networks are either biologically implausible, and/or require a continuous, real-time error signal to guide learning. Here we show that a biologically plausible learning rule can train such recurrent networks, guided solely by delayed, phasic rewards at the end of each trial. Networks endowed with this learning rule can successfully learn nontrivial tasks requiring flexible (context-dependent) associations, memory maintenance, nonlinear mixed selectivities, and coordination among multiple outputs. The resulting networks replicate complex dynamics previously observed in animal cortex, such as dynamic encoding of task features and selective integration of sensory inputs. We conclude that recurrent neural networks offer a plausible model of cortical dynamics during both learning and performance of flexible behavior.

Article and author information

Author details

  1. Thomas Miconi

    The Neurosciences Institute, La Jolla, United States
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-7897-4492


G Harold and Leila Y. Mathers Foundation

  • Thomas Miconi

The William and Jane Walsh Charitable Remainder Unitrust

  • Thomas Miconi

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.

Reviewing Editor

  1. Michael J Frank, Brown University, United States

Publication history

  1. Received: August 23, 2016
  2. Accepted: February 17, 2017
  3. Accepted Manuscript published: February 23, 2017 (version 1)
  4. Version of Record published: April 20, 2017 (version 2)


© 2017, Miconi

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


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  1. Thomas Miconi
Biologically plausible learning in recurrent neural networks reproduces neural dynamics observed during cognitive tasks
eLife 6:e20899.
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