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Convolutional neural networks (CNNs) are one of the most successful computer vision systems to solve object recognition. Furthermore, CNNs have major applications in understanding the nature of visual representations in the human brain. Yet it remains poorly understood how CNNs actually make their decisions, what the nature of their internal representations is, and how their recognition strategies differ from humans. Specifically, there is a major debate about the question of whether CNNs primarily rely on surface regularities of objects, or whether they are capable of exploiting the spatial arrangement of features, similar to humans. Here, we develop a novel feature-scrambling approach to explicitly test whether CNNs use the spatial arrangement of features (i.e. object parts) to classify objects. We combine this approach with a systematic manipulation of effective receptive field sizes of CNNs as well as minimal recognizable configurations (MIRCs) analysis. In contrast to much previous literature, we provide evidence that CNNs are in fact capable of using relatively long-range spatial relationships for object classification. Moreover, the extent to which CNNs use spatial relationships depends heavily on the dataset, e.g. texture vs. sketch. In fact, CNNs even use different strategies for different classes within heterogeneous datasets (ImageNet), suggesting CNNs have a continuous spectrum of classification strategies. Finally, we show that CNNs learn the spatial arrangement of features only up to an intermediate level of granularity, which suggests that intermediate rather than global shape features provide the optimal trade-off between sensitivity and specificity in object classification. These results provide novel insights into the nature of CNN representations and the extent to which they rely on the spatial arrangement of features for object classification.

Neurons collect their inputs from other neurons by sending out arborized dendritic structures. However, the relationship between the shape of dendrites and the precise organization of synaptic inputs in the neural tissue remains unclear. Inputs could be distributed in tight clusters, entirely randomly or else in a regular grid-like manner. Here, we analyze dendritic branching structures using a regularity index R, based on average nearest neighbor distances between branch and termination points, characterizing their spatial distribution. We find that the distributions of these points depend strongly on cell types, indicating possible fundamental differences in synaptic input organization. Moreover, R is independent of cell size and we find that it is only weakly correlated with other branching statistics, suggesting that it might reflect features of dendritic morphology that are not captured by commonly studied branching statistics. We then use morphological models based on optimal wiring principles to study the relation between input distributions and dendritic branching structures. Using our models, we find that branch point distributions correlate more closely with the input distributions while termination points in dendrites are generally spread out more randomly with a close to uniform distribution. We validate these model predictions with connectome data. Finally, we find that in spatial input distributions with increasing regularity, characteristic scaling relationships between branching features are altered significantly. In summary, we conclude that local statistics of input distributions and dendrite morphology depend on each other leading to potentially cell type specific branching features.

Dendrites form predominantly binary trees that are exquisitely embedded in the networks of the brain. While neuronal computation is known to depend on the morphology of dendrites, their underlying topological blueprint remains unknown. Here, we used a centripetal branch ordering scheme originally developed to describe river networks—the Horton-Strahler order (SO)–to examine hierarchical relationships of branching statistics in reconstructed and model dendritic trees. We report on a number of universal topological relationships with SO that are true for all binary trees and distinguish those from SO-sorted metric measures that appear to be cell type-specific. The latter are therefore potential new candidates for categorising dendritic tree structures. Interestingly, we find a faithful correlation of branch diameters with centripetal branch orders, indicating a possible functional importance of SO for dendritic morphology and growth. Also, simulated local voltage responses to synaptic inputs are strongly correlated with SO. In summary, our study identifies important SO-dependent measures in dendritic morphology that are relevant for neural function while at the same time it describes other relationships that are universal for all dendrites.

Residual connections have been proposed as an architecture-based inductive bias to mitigate the problem of exploding and vanishing gradients and increased task performance in both feed-forward and recurrent networks (RNNs) when trained with the backpropagation algorithm. Yet, little is known about how residual connections in RNNs influence their dynamics and fading memory properties. Here, we introduce weakly coupled residual recurrent networks (WCRNNs) in which residual connections result in well-defined Lyapunov exponents and allow for studying properties of fading memory. We investigate how the residual connections of WCRNNs influence their performance, network dynamics, and memory properties on a set of benchmark tasks. We show that several distinct forms of residual connections yield effective inductive biases that result in increased network expressivity. In particular, those are residual connections that (i) result in network dynamics at the proximity of the edge of chaos, (ii) allow networks to capitalize on characteristic spectral properties of the data, and (iii) result in heterogeneous memory properties. In addition, we demonstrate how our results can be extended to non-linear residuals and introduce a weakly coupled residual initialization scheme that can be used for Elman RNNs.