Short-Term Plasticity Neurons Learning to Learn and Forget

Hector Garcia Rodriguez · Qinghai Guo · Timoleon Moraitis

Hall E #436

Keywords: [ RL: Deep RL ] [ MISC: Online Learning, Active Learning and Bandits ] [ DL: Sequential Models, Time series ] [ MISC: Transfer, Multitask and Meta-learning ] [ APP: Robotics ] [ DL: Recurrent Networks ]


Short-term plasticity (STP) is a mechanism that stores decaying memories in synapses of the cerebral cortex. In computing practice, STP has been used, but mostly in the niche of spiking neurons, even though theory predicts that it is the optimal solution to certain dynamic tasks. Here we present a new type of recurrent neural unit, the STP Neuron (STPN), which indeed turns out strikingly powerful. Its key mechanism is that synapses have a state, propagated through time by a self-recurrent connection-within-the-synapse. This formulation enables training the plasticity with backpropagation through time, resulting in a form of learning to learn and forget in the short term. The STPN outperforms all tested alternatives, i.e. RNNs, LSTMs, other models with fast weights, and differentiable plasticity. We confirm this in both supervised and reinforcement learning (RL), and in tasks such as Associative Retrieval, Maze Exploration, Atari video games, and MuJoCo robotics. Moreover, we calculate that, in neuromorphic or biological circuits, the STPN minimizes energy consumption across models, as it depresses individual synapses dynamically. Based on these, biological STP may have been a strong evolutionary attractor that maximizes both efficiency and computational power. The STPN now brings these neuromorphic advantages also to a broad spectrum of machine learning practice. Code is available in

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