PhD Thesis Bayesian Learning of Continuous Time Dynamical Systems with Applications in Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging

L.M. Murray


Temporal phenomena in a range of disciplines are more naturally modelled in continuous-time than coerced into a discrete-time formulation. Differential systems form the mainstay of such modelling, in fields from physics to economics, geoscience to neuroscience. While powerful, these are fundamentally limited by their determinism. For the purposes of probabilistic inference, their extension to stochastic differential equations permits a continuous injection of noise and uncertainty into the system, the model, and its observation.

This thesis considers Bayesian filtering for state and parameter estimation in general non-linear, non-Gaussian systems using these stochastic differential models. It identifies a number of challenges in this setting over and above those of discrete time, most notably the absence of a closed form transition density. These are addressed via a synergy of diverse work in numerical integration, particle filtering and high performance distributed computing, engineering novel solutions for this class of model.

In an area where the default solution is linear discretisation, the first major contribution is the introduction of higher-order numerical schemes, particularly stochastic Runge-Kutta, for more efficient simulation of the system dynamics. Improved runtime performance is demonstrated on a number of problems, and compatibility of these integrators with conventional particle filtering and smoothing schemes discussed.

Finding compatibility for the smoothing problem most lacking, the major theoretical contribution of the work is the introduction of two novel particle methods, the \emph{kernel forward-backward} and \emph{kernel two-filter} smoothers. By harnessing kernel density approximations in an importance sampling framework, these attain cancellation of the intractable transition density, ensuring applicability in continuous time. The use of kernel estimators is particularly amenable to parallelisation, and provides broader support for smooth densities than a sample-based representation alone, helping alleviate the well known issue of degeneracy in particle smoothers.

Implementation of the methods for large-scale problems on high performance computing architectures is provided. Achieving improved temporal and spatial complexity, highly favourable runtime comparisons against conventional techniques are presented.

Finally, attention turns to real world problems in the domain of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), first constructing a biologically motivated stochastic differential model of the neural and hemodynamic activity underlying the observed signal in fMRI. This model and the methodological advances of the work culminate in application to the deconvolution and effective connectivity problems in this domain.


L.M. Murray (2009). Bayesian Learning of Continuous Time Dynamical Systems. Ph.D. Thesis, School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh. url:


  title = {Bayesian Learning of Continuous Time Dynamical Systems with Applications in Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging},
  author = {Lawrence Matthew Murray},
  year = {2009},
  url = {}