Title: Low-rank graphical models and Bayesian inference in the statistical analysis of noisy neural data
Abstract: We develop new methods of Bayesian inference, largely in the context of analysis of neuroscience data. The work is broken into several parts. In the first part, we introduce a novel class of joint probability distributions in which exact inference is tractable. Previously it has been difficult to find general constructions for models in which efficient exact inference is possible, outside of certain classical cases. We identify a class of such models that are tractable owing to a certain “low-rank” structure in the potentials that couple neighboring variables. In the second part we develop methods to quantify and measure information loss in analysis of neuronal spike train data due to two types of noise, making use of the ideas developed in the first part. Information about neuronal identity or temporal resolution may be lost during spike detection and sorting, or precision of spike times may be corrupted by various effects. We quantify the information lost due to these effects for the relatively simple but sufficiently broad class of Markovian model neurons. We find that decoders that model the probability distribution of spike-neuron assignments significantly outperform decoders that use only the most likely spike assignments. We also apply the ideas of the low-rank models from the first section to defining a class of prior distributions over the space of stimuli (or other covariate) which, by conjugacy, preserve the tractability of inference. In the third part, we treat Bayesian methods for the estimation of sparse signals, with application to the locating of synapses in a dendritic tree. We develop a compartmentalized model of the dendritic tree. Building on previous work that applied and generalized ideas of least angle regression to obtain a fast Bayesian solution to the resulting estimation problem, we describe two other approaches to the same problem, one employing a horseshoe prior and the other using various spike-and-slab priors. In the last part, we revisit the low-rank models of the first section and apply them to the problem of inferring orientation selectivity maps from noisy observations of orientation preference. The relevant low-rank model exploits the self-conjugacy of the von Mises distribution on the circle. Because the orientation map model is loopy, we cannot do exact inference on the low-rank model by the forward back- ward algorithm, but block-wise Gibbs sampling by the forward backward algorithm speeds mixing. We explore another von Mises coupling potential Gibbs sampler that proves to effectively smooth noisily observed orientation maps.