Journal article

Limits to high-speed simulations of spiking neural networks using general-purpose computers

To understand how the central nervous system performs computations using recurrent neuronal circuitry, simulations have become an indispensable tool for theoretical neuroscience. To study neuronal circuits and their ability to self-organize, increasing attention has been directed toward synaptic plasticity. In particular spike-timing-dependent plasticity (STDP) creates specific demands for simulations of spiking neural networks. On the one hand a high temporal resolution is required to capture the millisecond timescale of typical STDP windows. On the other hand network simulations have to evolve over hours up to days, to capture the timescale of long-term plasticity. To do this efficiently, fast simulation speed is the crucial ingredient rather than large neuron numbers. Using different medium-sized network models consisting of several thousands of neurons and off-the-shelf hardware, we compare the simulation speed of the simulators: Brian, NEST and Neuron as well as our own simulator Auryn. Our results show that real-time simulations of different plastic network models are possible in parallel simulations in which numerical precision is not a primary concern. Even so, the speed-up margin of parallelism is limited and boosting simulation speeds beyond one tenth of real-time is difficult. By profiling simulation code we show that the run times of typical plastic network simulations encounter a hard boundary. This limit is partly due to latencies in the inter-process communications and thus cannot be overcome by increased parallelism. Overall, these results show that to study plasticity in medium-sized spiking neural networks, adequate simulation tools are readily available which run efficiently on small clusters. However, to run simulations substantially faster than real-time, special hardware is a prerequisite.

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