eLife digest | Demixed principal component analysis of neural population data

Open accessCopyright infoDownload PDF

Demixed principal component analysis of neural population data

eLife digest

Affiliation details

Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, Portugal; École Normale Supérieure, France; Centre for Integrative Neuroscience, University of Tübingen, Germany; Wake Forest University School of Medicine, United States; Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, United States; Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico; El Colegio Nacional, Mexico; Harvard University, United States

Many neuroscience experiments today involve using electrodes to record from the brain of an animal, such as a mouse or a monkey, while the animal performs a task. The goal of such experiments is to understand how a particular brain region works. However, modern experimental techniques allow the activity of hundreds of neurons to be recorded simultaneously. Analysing such large amounts of data then becomes a challenge in itself.

This is particularly true for brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex that are involved in the cognitive processes that allow an animal to acquire knowledge. Individual neurons in the prefrontal cortex encode many different types of information relevant to a given task. Imagine, for example, that an animal has to select one of two objects to obtain a reward. The same group of prefrontal cortex neurons will encode the object presented to the animal, the animal’s decision and its confidence in that decision. This simultaneous representation of different elements of a task is called a ‘mixed’ representation, and is difficult to analyse.

Kobak, Brendel et al. have now developed a data analysis tool that can ‘demix’ neural activity. The tool breaks down the activity of a population of neurons into its individual components. Each of these relates to only a single aspect of the task and is thus easier to interpret. Information about stimuli, for example, is distinguished from information about the animal’s confidence levels.

Kobak, Brendel et al. used the demixing tool to reanalyse existing datasets recorded from several different animals, tasks and brain regions. In each case, the tool provided a complete, concise and transparent summary of the data. The next steps will be to apply the analysis tool to new datasets to see how well it performs in practice. At a technical level, the tool could also be extended in a number of different directions to enable it to deal with more complicated experimental designs in future.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.10989.002