Published September 1, 2020 | Version Published
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On Simulating Neural Damage in Connectionist Networks

  • 1. Research Centre on Interactive Media, Smart Systems and Emerging Technologies — RISE, Nicosia, Cyprus and Department of Experimental Psychology, University College London, London, UK
  • 2. Center for Cognition, Computation and Modelling, Department of Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck, London, UK


A key strength of connectionist modelling is its ability to simulate both intact cognition and the behavioural effects of neural damage. We survey the literature, showing that models have been damaged in a variety of ways, e.g. by removing connections, by adding noise to connection weights, by scaling weights, by removing units and by adding noise to unit activations. While these different implementations of damage have often been assumed to be behaviourally equivalent, some theorists have made aetiological claims that rest on nonequivalence. They suggest that related deficits with different aetiologies might be accounted for by different forms of damage within a single model. We present two case studies that explore the effects of different forms of damage in two influential connectionist models, each of which has been applied to explain neuropsychological deficits. Our results indicate that the effect of simulated damage can indeed be sensitive to the way in which damage is implemented, particularly when the environment comprises subsets of items that differ in their statistical properties, but such effects are sensitive to relatively subtle aspects of the model’s training environment. We argue that, as a consequence, substantial methodological care is required if aetiological claims about simulated neural damage are to be justified, and conclude more generally that implementation assumptions, including those concerning simulated damage, must be fully explored when evaluating models of neurological deficits, both to avoid over-extending the explanatory power of specific implementations and to ensure that reported results are replicable.


This work has been partly supported by the project that has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 739578 (RISE – Call: H2020-WIDESPREAD-01-2016-2017-TeamingPhase2) and the Republic of Cyprus through the Deputy Ministry of Research, Innovation and Digital Policy.



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RISE – Research Center on Interactive Media, Smart System and Emerging Technologies 739578
European Commission