Introduction to Neural Networks

Neural networks are systems loosely modeled on the human brain. They are an attempt to simulate within specialized hardware or, more commonly, sophisticated software, the multiple layers and interactions of simple processing elements called neurons. Each neuron is linked to certain of its neighbours with varying coefficients of connectivity that represent the strengths of these connections. Learning is accomplished by adjusting these strengths to cause the overall network to output appropriate results.

Each neuron in a network either fires or does not depending on whether the sum of inputs into it are greater than or less than zero. This is worked out by multiplying the output (either 0 or 1) of each neuron leading into it by the weighting assigned to that path. Determining these weightings is a major part of designing neural networks.

Designing a Neural Network

Designing a neural network consists of:

  • Arranging neurons in various layers.
  • Deciding the type of connections among neurons for different layers, as well as among the neurons within a layer.
  • Deciding the way a neuron receives input and produces output.
  • Determining the strength of connection within the network by allowing the network to learn the appropriate values of connection weights by using a training data set.


Biologically, neural networks are constructed in a three dimensional way from small components. These neurons seem capable of nearly unrestricted interconnections, something which is not true in any man-made network. Artificial neural networks are the simple clustering of very primitive artificial neurons. This clustering occurs by creating layers, which are then connected to one another. How these layers connect may also vary. In essence, all artificial neural networks have a similar topological structure. Some of the neurons interface the real world to receive their inputs and other neurons provide the real world with outputs from the network. All the rest of the neurons are hidden from view but are nevertheless an integral part of its function.

The input layer consists of neurons that receive input from the external environment. The output layer consists of neurons that communicate the output of the system to the user or external environment. There are usually a number of hidden layers between these two layers with each additional layer adding complexity.

When the input layer receives the input its neurons produce an output, which becomes the input of the next layer of the system. The process continues until a certain condition is satisfied or until the output layer is invoked whose neurons fire their output to the external environment.

In order to determine the number of hidden neurons the network should have in order to perform its function quickly, trial and error is unfortunately often the best method. If you increase the hidden number of neurons too much you will get an over fit, that is the net will have problems with generalizing. The training set of data will be memorized, making the network useless on new data sets.

Communication and types of connections

Neurons are connected via a network of paths carrying the output of one neuron as input to another neuron. These paths is normally unidirectional although it is perfectly possible to have a two-way connection between two neurons. A neuron receives input from many neurons, but produces a single output, which is communicated to other neurons.

Each neuron in a layer may communicate with others, or might not have any intra-layer connections. The neurons of each layer are always connected to the neurons of at least another layer.

There are two types of connections between two neurons, excitatory or inhibitory. In the excitatory connection, the output of one neuron increases the activity or action potential of the neuron to which it is connected. When the connection type between two neurons is inhibitory, then the output of the neuron sending a message would reduce the action potential of the receiving neuron. The first is derived from a positive weighting between neurons and the second a negative one.

Inter-layer connections

In the most simple neural networks, neurons in each layer communicate only with those in other layers. There six major types of inter-layer connections which are each useful in particular circumstances.

  • Fully connected
  • Each neuron on the first layer is connected to every neuron on the second layer.

  • Partially connected
  • A neuron of the first layer does not have to be connected to all neurons on the second layer.

  • Feed forward
  • The neurons on the first layer send their output to the neurons on the second layer, but they do not receive any input back form the neurons on the second layer.

  • Bi-directional
  • There is another set of connections carrying the output of the neurons of the second layer into the neurons of the first layer. Feed forward and bi-directional connections can be fully or partially connected.

  • Hierarchical
  • If a neural network has a hierarchical structure, the neurons on each layer may only communicate with neurons on the next layer down.

  • Resonance
  • The layers have bi-directional connections, and they can continue sending messages across the connections a number of times until a certain condition is achieved.

    Intra-layer connections

    In more complex structures the neurons communicate among themselves within a layer. There are two types of intra-layer connections.

  • Recurrent
  • The neurons within a layer are fully or partially connected to one another. After these neurons receive input from another layer, they communicate their outputs with one another a number of times before they are allowed to send their outputs to another layer. Generally some conditions among the neurons of the layer should be achieved before they communicate their outputs to another layer.

  • On-center/off surround
  • A neuron within a layer has excitatory connections to itself and its immediate neighbours, and has inhibitory connections to other neurons. One can imagine this type of connection as a competitive group of neurons. Each group excites itself and its group members and inhibits members of other groups. After a few rounds of signal interchange, the neurons with an active output value will win, and are allowed to update their group's weightings.