Visualizing the Connectome

By Neuroskeptic | May 12, 2013 4:49 am

Last year, I blogged about a new and very pretty way of displaying the data about the human ‘connectome’ – the wiring between different parts of the brain.

But there are many beautiful ways of visualizing the brain’s connections, as neuroscientists Daniel Margulies and colleagues of Leipzig discuss in a colourful paper showcasing these techniques.

Here, for example, are two ways of showing the brain’s white matter tracts, as studied with diffusion tensor imaging (DTI):

Another striking image is this one, a representation of the brain’s functional connectivity – the degree to which activation in each part of the brain is correlated with activity in every other part.

The functional connectome is inherently difficult to visualize in 2D (or even 3D), but in this ingenious display, the brain’s surface is shown covered with hundreds of little brains, each one a colour-coded map of the connectivity from that particular point:

The Margulies paper is about more than just pretty pictures, though. The authors also discuss the scientific questions and theoretical tensions that surround the choice of one visualization over another:

Scientific figure and illustrations are – to paraphrase Tufte – where seeing turns into showing. The capacity of these images to influence our interpretation of data and to direct the questions of the scientific community make visualizations worthy of careful consideration during their production…

If we present a figure that clarifies the scientific content, but does so by creating a distortion of brain space, is that bad practice? What if the caption and methods explicitly stated that the contents of the figure were not to be taken literally? To what degree should a visualization be allowed to stand alone?

In my view, the study of connections has been dominated by images, more than any other branch of neuroscience. It’s rarely easy to say where ‘method’ or ‘analysis’ ends and ‘visualization’ begins.

This is not a bad thing – connectivity is spatial, by definition, and to understand space is to visualize it. But it does mean that in the connectome, there is always a danger of valuing aesthetics over accuracy, beauty above brains.

ResearchBlogging.orgMargulies DS, Böttger J, Watanabe A, & Gorgolewski KJ (2013). Visualizing the Human Connectome. NeuroImage PMID: 23660027

  • Semigrounded

    “This is not a bad thing – connectivity is spatial, by definition, and to understand space is to visualize it. But it does mean that in the connectome, there is always a danger of valuing aesthetics over accuracy, beauty above brains.”

    I like this. It illustrates why the connectome feels a bit quixotic, or like academic dithering, a way of creating a data field for the sole purpose of collecting that data field. Visualization is a remarkable tool. It creates understanding by organizing and reorganizing the brain’s information, but these aren’t human visualizations, they’re computer visualizations. They need to be shoved back into a computer that can fit them into our current structure of knowledge. Otherwise, they’re just pretty.

  • Pingback: Visualizing the Connectome | DA6NCI()

  • toostoned tocare

    How does one define a brain that is normal? Isn’t this a social political decision that has nothing to do with science? I watched with interest the BBC news coverage of this which presented a teenage girl with ‘mood swings’ as being relieved that it was ‘just a problem’ with her brain. So being, as a teenager with usual anger, disatisfaction, or ‘moody’ is now seen as a result of a neurological disease. Well the beatniks, the teddy boys, the hippies and the punks etc can now be eradicated by neurology! Well done!!

  • Pingback: Futureseek Daily Link Review; 28 May 2014 | Futureseek Link Digest()

  • Pingback: Human Connectome Project | Pearltrees()

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Neuroskeptic

No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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