Bridging the gap between artificial models and cortical circuits

Christopher B. Currin, Karin Stecher, Carsten Pfeffer, Gaia Novarino, and Tim P. Vogels


Artificial neural networks simplify complex biological circuits into tractable models for computational exploration and experimentation. However, the simplification of artificial models also undermines their applicability to real brain dynamics. Typical efforts to address this mismatch add complexity to increasingly unwieldy models. Here, we take a different approach; by reducing the complexity of a biological cortical culture, we aim to distil the essential factors of neuronal dynamics and plasticity. We leverage recent advances in growing neurons from human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs) to analyse ex vivo cortical cultures with only two distinct excitatory and inhibitory neuron populations. Over 6 weeks of development, we record from thousands of neurons using high-density microelectrode arrays (HD-MEAs) that allow access to individual neurons and the broader population dynamics. We compare these dynamics to two-population artificial networks of single-compartment neurons with random sparse connections and show that they produce similar dynamics. Specifically, our model captures the firing and bursting statistics of the cultures. Moreover, tightly integrating models and cultures allows us to evaluate the impact of changing architectures over weeks of development, with and without external stimuli. Broadly, the use of simplified cortical cultures enables us to use the repertoire of theoretical neuroscience techniques established over the past decades on artificial network models. Our approach of deriving neural networks from human cells also allows us, for the first time, to directly compare neural dynamics of disease and control. We found that cultures e.g. from epilepsy patients tended to have increasingly more avalanches of synchronous activity over weeks of development, in contrast to the control cultures. Next, we will test possible interventions, in silico and in vitro, in a drive for personalised approaches to medical care. This work starts bridging an important theoretical-experimental neuroscience gap for advancing our understanding of mammalian neuron dynamics.