A model of columnar networks of neocortical association areas is studied. The neuronal network is composed of many Hebbian autoassociators, or modules, each of which interacts with a relatively small number of the others, randomly chosen. Any module encodes and stores a number of elementary percepts, or features. Memory items, or patterns, are peculiar combinations of features sparsely distributed over the multi-modular network. Any feature stored in any module can be involved in several of the stored patterns; feature-sharing is in fact source of local ambiguities and, consequently, a potential cause of erroneous memory retrieval spreading through the model network in pattern completion tasks.
The memory retrieval dynamics of the large modular autoassociator is investigated by combining mathematical analysis and numerical simulations. An oscillatory retrieval process is proposed that is very efficient in overcoming feature-sharing drawbacks; it requires a mechanism that modulates the robustness of local attractors to noise, and neuronal activity sparseness such that quiescent and active modules are about equally noisy to any post-synaptic module.
Moreover, it is shown that statistical correlation between ‘kinds’ of features across the set of memory patterns can be exploited to obtain a more efficient achievement of memory retrieval capabilities.
It is also shown that some spots of the network cannot be reached by retrieval activity spread if they are not directly cued by the stimulus. The locations of these activity isles depend on the pattern to retrieve, while their extension only depends (in large networks) on statistics of inter-modular connections and stored patterns. The existence of activity isles determines an upper-bound to retrieval quality that does not depend on the specific retrieval dynamics adopted, nor on whether feature-sharing is permitted. The oscillatory retrieval process nearly saturates this bound.