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3 Publications

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    05/25/22 | Accurate angular integration with only a handful of neurons.
    Marcella Noorman , Brad K Hulse , Vivek Jayaraman , Sandro Romani , Ann M Hermundstad
    bioRxiv. 2022 May 25:. doi: 10.1101/2022.05.23.493052

    To flexibly navigate, many animals rely on internal spatial representations that persist when the animal is standing still in darkness, and update accurately by integrating the animal's movements in the absence of localizing sensory cues. Theories of mammalian head direction cells have proposed that these dynamics can be realized in a special class of networks that maintain a localized bump of activity via structured recurrent connectivity, and that shift this bump of activity via angular velocity input. Although there are many different variants of these so-called ring attractor networks, they all rely on large numbers of neurons to generate representations that persist in the absence of input and accurately integrate angular velocity input. Surprisingly, in the fly, Drosophila melanogaster, a head direction representation is maintained by a much smaller number of neurons whose dynamics and connectivity resemble those of a ring attractor network. These findings challenge our understanding of ring attractors and their putative implementation in neural circuits. Here, we analyzed failures of angular velocity integration that emerge in small attractor networks with only a few computational units. Motivated by the peak performance of the fly head direction system in darkness, we mathematically derived conditions under which small networks, even with as few as 4 neurons, achieve the performance of much larger networks. The resulting description reveals that by appropriately tuning the network connectivity, the network can maintain persistent representations over the continuum of head directions, and it can accurately integrate angular velocity inputs. We then analytically determined how performance degrades as the connectivity deviates from this optimally-tuned setting, and we find a trade-off between network size and the tuning precision needed to achieve persistence and accurate integration. This work shows how even small networks can accurately track an animal's movements to guide navigation, and it informs our understanding of the functional capabilities of discrete systems more broadly.

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    05/24/22 | Perceptual decisions exhibit hallmarks of dynamic Bayesian inference
    Julie A. Charlton , Wiktor F. Młynarski , Yoon H. Bai , Ann M. Hermundstad , Robbe L. T. Goris
    bioRxiv. 2022 May 24:. doi: 10.1101/2022.05.23.493109

    To interpret the sensory environment, the brain combines ambiguous sensory measurements with context-specific prior experience. But environmental contexts can change abruptly and unpredictably, resulting in uncertainty about the current context. Here we address two questions: how should context-specific prior knowledge optimally guide the interpretation of sensory stimuli in changing environments, and do human decision-making strategies resemble this optimum? We probe these questions with a task in which subjects report the orientation of ambiguous visual stimuli that were drawn from three dynamically switching distributions, representing different environmental contexts. We derive predictions for an ideal Bayesian observer that leverages the statistical structure of the task to maximize decision accuracy and show that its decisions are biased by task context. The magnitude of this decision bias is not a fixed property of the sensory measurement but depends on the observer's belief about the current context. The model therefore predicts that decision bias will grow with the reliability of the context cue, the stability of the environment, and with the number of trials since the last context switch. Analysis of human choice data validates all three predictions, providing evidence that the brain continuously updates probabilistic representations of the environment to best interpret an uncertain, ever-changing world.

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    05/18/22 | Maintaining a stable head direction representation in naturalistic visual environments
    Hannah Haberkern , Shivam S Chitnis , Philip M Hubbard , Tobias Goulet , Ann M Hermundstad , Vivek Jayaraman
    bioRxiv. 2022 May 18:. doi: 10.1101/2022.05.17.492284

    Many animals rely on a representation of head direction for flexible, goal-directed navigation. In insects, a compass-like head direction representation is maintained in a conserved brain region called the central complex. This head direction representation is updated by self-motion information and by tethering to sensory cues in the surroundings through a plasticity mechanism. However, under natural settings, some of these sensory cues may temporarily disappear—for example, when clouds hide the sun—and prominent landmarks at different distances from the insect may move across the animal's field of view during translation, creating potential conflicts for a neural compass. We used two-photon calcium imaging in head-fixed Drosophila behaving in virtual reality to monitor the fly's compass during navigation in immersive naturalistic environments with approachable local landmarks. We found that the fly's compass remains stable even in these settings by tethering to available global cues, likely preserving the animal's ability to perform compass-driven behaviors such as maintaining a constant heading.

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