The research team hopes the computer model of brain connectivity may be able to save the health-care system and research centres time and money by decreasing the number of necessary patient brain scans.
“The brain represents one of the most complex physical systems in the known universe, and as researchers we are able to investigate the brain using our own brains and the advanced computational resources available to us,” said Neudorf (BSc'17, MA'19), who is pursuing his doctoral degree in the U of S College of Arts and Science Department of Psychology and Health Studies, in an interview with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
The brain uses axons (nerve fibres) to allow neurons — nerve cells — to ‘talk’ to the rest of the brain and the body. Neudorf said thinking of the brain as a computer is a great way to understand how it communicates.
“If you think of the brain as a computer with wires connecting the various components, our research investigates to what extent the ‘wires’ connecting different brain regions — called ‘structural connectivity’ — determine how well those regions work together,” said Neudorf.
Neudorf said the challenge with analyzing brain connections and how they make the brain function is that not all regions are directly connected. Sometimes, brain regions are connected only through a common area.
Typically, brains are assessed using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques. MRI machines use large magnets and radio waves to create a detailed image of brain and spinal cord activity.
For the first time in brain research, Neudorf and his team used a graph neural network deep learning computer model — one that is built to learn and make decisions from data — to map brain connectivity. The work is supervised by Dr. Ron Borowsky (BA'89, PhD), U of S College of Arts and Science professor and director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Lab.
“The specific type of deep learning we used has never before been applied to this problem, and proved to be tremendously successful,” said Neudorf. Approximately 1,000 MRI brain scans from the publicly available Human Connectome Project were used as data to draw conclusions into the relationship between the structure and function of the brain.
The findings concluded indirect connections between brain regions may have more of an influence on the overall function of the brain than previously thought. It was also noted that brain regions with lots of direct connections can elicit more complex brain functions. These results were published in the journal Neuroscience.
“Previously, the structural connections in the brain have not been able to show a strong association with the patterns of functional connectivity. Our research demonstrates a stronger association than the many other international attempts over the past decades.”
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