From brain topography to brain topology: relevance of graph theory to functional neuroscience

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Abstract

Although several brain regions show significant specialization, higher functions such as cross-modal information integration, abstract reasoning and conscious awareness are viewed as emerging from interactions across distributed functional networks. Analytical approaches capable of capturing the properties of such networks can therefore enhance our ability to make inferences from functional MRI, electroencephalography and magnetoencephalography data. Graph theory is a branch of mathematics that focuses on the formal modelling of networks and offers a wide range of theoretical tools to quantify specific features of network architecture (topology) that can provide information complementing the anatomical localization of areas responding to given stimuli or tasks (topography). Explicit modelling of the architecture of axonal connections and interactions among areas can furthermore reveal peculiar topological properties that are conserved across diverse biological networks, and highly sensitive to disease states. The field is evolving rapidly, partly fuelled by computational developments that enable the study of connectivity at fine anatomical detail and the simultaneous interactions among multiple regions. Recent publications in this area have shown that graph-based modelling can enhance our ability to draw causal inferences from functional MRI experiments, and support the early detection of disconnection and the modelling of pathology spread in neurodegenerative disease, particularly Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, neurophysiological studies have shown that network topology has a profound link to epileptogenesis and that connectivity indices derived from graph models aid in modelling the onset and spread of seizures. Graph-based analyses may therefore significantly help understand the bases of a range of neurological conditions. This review is designed to provide an overview of graph-based analyses of brain connectivity and their relevance to disease aimed principally at general neuroscientists and clinicians.

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