From connectome to cognition: The search for mechanism in human functional brain networks

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Recent developments in functional connectivity research have expanded the scope of human neuroimaging, from identifying changes in regional activation amplitudes to detailed mapping of large-scale brain networks. However, linking network processes to a clear role in cognition demands advances in the theoretical frameworks, algorithms, and experimental approaches applied. This would help evolve the field from a descriptive to an explanatory state, by targeting network interactions that can mechanistically account for cognitive effects. In the present review, we provide an explicit framework to aid this search for “network mechanisms”, which anchors recent methodological advances in functional connectivity estimation to a renewed emphasis on careful experimental design. We emphasize how this framework can address specific questions in network neuroscience. These span ambiguity over the cognitive relevance of resting-state networks, how to characterize task-evoked and spontaneous network dynamics, how to identify directed or “effective” connections, and how to apply multivariate pattern analysis at the network level. In parallel, we apply the framework to highlight the mechanistic interaction of network components that remain “stable” across task domains and more “flexible” components associated with on-task reconfiguration. By emphasizing the need to structure the use of diverse analytic approaches with sound experimentation, our framework promotes an explanatory mapping between the workings of the cognitive mind and the large-scale network mechanisms of the human brain.

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