K Jensen, TC Kao, J Stone, and G Hennequin
Latent variable models are ubiquitous in the exploratory analysis of neural population recordings, where they allow researchers to summarize the activity of large populations of neurons in lower dimensional ‘latent’ spaces. Existing methods can generally be categorized into (i) Bayesian methods that facilitate flexible incorporation of prior knowledge and uncertainty estimation, but which typically do not scale to large datasets; and (ii) highly parameterized methods without explicit priors that scale better but often struggle in the low-data regime. Here, we bridge this gap by developing a fully Bayesian yet scalable version of Gaussian process factor analysis (bGPFA) which models neural data as arising from a set of inferred latent processes with a prior that encourages smoothness over time. Additionally, bGPFA uses automatic relevance determination to infer the dimensionality of neural activity directly from the training data during optimization. To enable the analysis of continuous recordings without trial structure, we introduce a novel variational inference strategy that scales near-linearly in time and also allows for non-Gaussian noise models more appropriate for electrophysiological recordings. We apply bGPFA to continuous recordings spanning 30 minutes with over 14 million data points from primate motor and somatosensory cortices during a self-paced reaching task. We show that neural activity progresses from an initial state at target onset to a reach-specific preparatory state well before movement onset. The distance between these initial and preparatory latent states is predictive of reaction times across reaches, suggesting that such preparatory dynamics have behavioral relevance despite the lack of externally imposed delay periods. Additionally, bGPFA discovers latent processes that evolve over slow timescales on the order of several seconds and contain complementary information about reaction time. These timescales are longer than those revealed by methods which focus on individual movement epochs and may reflect fluctuations in e.g. task engagement.