A cortical information bottleneck during decision-making

  1. Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of California, Los Angeles, CA, USA
  2. Department of Biomedical Engineering, Boston University, Boston, MA, USA
  3. Neurosciences Program, University of California, Los Angeles, CA, USA
  4. Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Boston University, Boston, MA, USA
  5. Department of Anatomy & Neurobiology, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, MA, USA
  6. Center for Systems Neuroscience, Boston University, Boston, MA, USA


  • Reviewing Editor
    Srdjan Ostojic
    École Normale Supérieure - PSL, Paris, France
  • Senior Editor
    Michael Frank
    Brown University, Providence, United States of America

Reviewer #1 (Public Review):

In this study, the authors aim to understand why decision formation during behavioural tasks is distributed across multiple brain areas. They hypothesize that multiple areas are used in order to implement an information bottleneck (IB). Using neural activity recorded from monkey DLPFC and PMd performing a 2-AFC task, they show that DLPFC represents various task variables (decision, color, target configuration), while downstream PMd primarily represents decision information. Since decision information is the only information needed to make a decision, the authors point out that PMd has a minimal sufficient representation (as expected from an IB). They then train 3-area RNNs on the same task and show that activity in the first and third areas resemble the neural representations of DLPFC and PMd, respectively. In order to propose a mechanism, they analyse the RNN and find that area 3 ends up with primarily decision information because feedforward connections between areas primarily propagate decision information.

The paper addresses a deep, normative question, namely why task information is distributed across several areas.

Overall, it reads well and the analysis is well done and mostly correct (see below for some comments). My major problem with the paper is that I do not see that it actually provides an answer to the question posed (why is information distributed across areas?). I find that the core problem is that the information bottleneck method, which is evoked throughout the paper, is simply a generic compression method. Being a generic compressor, the IB does not make any statements about how a particular compression should be distributed across brain areas - see major points (1) and (2).

If I ignore the reference to the information bottleneck and the question of why pieces of information are distributed, I still see a more mechanistic study that proposes a neural mechanism of how decisions are formed, in the tradition of RNN-modelling of neural activity as in Mante et al 2013. Seen through this more limited sense, the present study succeeds at pointing out a good model-data match. I point out some suggestions for improvement below.

Major points
(1) It seems to me that the author's use of the IB is based on the reasoning that deep neural networks form decisions by passing task information through a series of transformations/layers/areas and that these deep nets have been shown to implement an IB. Furthermore, these transformations are also loosely motivated by the data processing inequality.

However, assuming as a given that deep neural networks implement an IB does not mean that an IB can only be implemented through a deep neural network. In fact, IBs could be performed with a single transformation just as well. More formally, a task associates stimuli (X) with required responses (Y), and the IB principle states that X should be mapped to a representation Z, such that I(X;Z) is minimal and I(Y,Z) is maximal. Importantly, the form of the map Z=f(X) is not constrained by the IB. In other words, the IB does not impose that there needs to be a series of transformations. I therefore do not see how the IB by itself makes any statement about the distribution of information across various brain areas.

A related problem is that the authors really only evoke the IB to explain the representation in PMd: Fig 2 shows that PMd is almost only showing decision information, and thus one can call this a minimal sufficient representation of the decision (although ignoring substantial condition independent activity). However, there is no IB prediction about what the representation of DLPFC should look like. Consequently, there is no IB prediction about how information should be distributed across DLPFC and PMd.

(2) Now the authors could change their argument and state that what is really needed is an IB with the additional assumption that transformations go through a feedforward network. However, even in this case, I am not sure I understand the need for distributing information in this task. In fact, in both the data and the network model, there is a nice linear readout of the decision information in dPFC (data) or area 1 (network model). Accordingly, the decision readout could occur at this stage already, and there is absolutely no need to tag on another area (PMd, area 2+3).

Similarly, I noticed that the authors consider 2,3, and 4-area models, but they do not consider a 1-area model. It is not clear why the 1-area model is not considered. Given that e.g. Mante et al, 2013, manage to fit a 1-area model to a task of similar complexity, I would a priori assume that a 1-area RNN would do just as well in solving this task.

I think there are two more general problems with the author's approach. First, transformations or hierarchical representations are usually evoked to get information into the right format in a pure feedforward network. An RNN can be seen as an infinitely deep feedforward network, so even a single RNN has, at least in theory, and in contrast to feedforward layers, the power to do arbitrarily complex transformations. Second, the information coming into the network here (color + target) is a classical xor-task. While this task cannot be solved by a perceptron (=single neuron), it also is not that complex either, at least compared to, e.g., the task of distinguishing cats from dogs based on an incoming image in pixel format.

(3) I am convinced of the author's argument that the RNN reproduces key features of the neural data. However, there are some points where the analysis should be improved.

(a) It seems that dPCA was applied without regularization. Since dPCA can overfit the data, proper regularization is important, so that one can judge, e.g., whether the components of Fig.2g,h are significant, or whether the differences between DLPFC and PMd are significant.

(b) I would have assumed that the analyses performed on the neural data were identical to the ones performed on the RNN data. However, it looked to me like that was not the case. For instance, dPCA of the neural data is done by restretching randomly timed trials to a median trial. It seemed that this restretching was not performed on the RNN. Maybe that is just an oversight, but it should be clarified. Moreover, the decoding analyses used SVC for the neural data, but a neural-net-based approach for the RNN data. Why the differences?

(4) The RNN seems to fit the data quite nicely, so that is interesting. At the same time, the fit seems somewhat serendipitous, or at least, I did not get a good sense of what was needed to make the RNN fit the data. The authors did go to great lengths to fit various network models and turn several knobs on the fit. However, at least to me, there are a few (obvious) knobs that were not tested.

First, as already mentioned above, why not try to fit a single-area model? I would expect that a single area model could also learn the task - after all, that is what Mante et al did in their 2013 paper and the author's task does not seem any more complex than the task by Mante and colleagues.

Second, I noticed that the networks fitted are always feedforward-dominated. What happens when feedforward and feedback connections are on an equal footing? Do we still find that only the decision information propagates to the next area? Quite generally, when it comes to attenuating information that is fed into the network (e.g. color), then that is much easier done through feedforward connections (where it can be done in a single pass, through proper alignment or misalignment of the feedforward synapses) than through recurrent connections (where you need to actively cancel the incoming information). So it seems to me that the reason the attenuation occurs in the inter-area connections could simply be because the odds are a priori stacked against recurrent connections. In the real brain, of course, there is no clear evidence that feedforward connections dominate over feedback connections anatomically.

More generally, it would be useful to clarify what exactly is sufficient:

(a) the information distribution occurs in any RNN, i.e., also in one-area RNNs
(b) the information distribution occurs when there are several, sparsely connected areas
(c) the information distribution occurs when there are feedforward-dominated connections between areas

Reviewer #2 (Public Review):

Kleinman and colleagues conducted an analysis of two datasets, one recorded from DLPFC in one monkey and the other from PMD in two monkeys. They also performed similar analyses on trained RNNs with various architectures.

The study revealed four main findings. (1) All task variables (color coherence, target configuration, and choice direction) were found to be encoded in DLPFC. (2) PMD, an area downstream of PFC, only encoded choice direction. (3) These empirical findings align with the celebrated 'information bottleneck principle,' which suggests that FF networks progressively filter out task-irrelevant information. (4) Moreover, similar results were observed in RNNs with three modules.

While the analyses supporting results 1 and 2 were convincing and robust, I have some concerns and recommendations regarding findings 3 and 4, which I will elaborate on below. It is important to note that findings 2 and 4 had already been reported in a previous publication by the same authors (ref. 43).

Major recommendation/comments:
The interpretation of the empirical findings regarding the communication subspace in relation to the information bottleneck theory is very interesting and novel. However, it may be a stretch to apply this interpretation directly to PFC-PMd, as was done with early vs. late areas of a FF neural network.

In the RNN simulations, the main finding indicates that a network with three or more modules lacks information about the stimulus in the third or subsequent modules. The authors draw a direct analogy between monkey PFC and PMd and Modules 1 and 3 of the RNNs, respectively. However, considering the model's architecture, it seems more appropriate to map Area 1 to regions upstream of PFC, such as the visual cortex, since Area 1 receives visual stimuli. Moreover, both PFC and PMd are deep within the brain hierarchy, suggesting a more natural mapping to later areas. This contradicts the CCA analysis in Figure 3e. It is recommended to either remap the areas or provide further support for the current mapping choice.

  1. Howard Hughes Medical Institute
  2. Wellcome Trust
  3. Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
  4. Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation