Two's company, three (or more) is a simplex: Algebraic-topological tools for understanding higher-order structure in neural data

7 Jan 2016  ·  Chad Giusti, Robert Ghrist, Danielle S. Bassett ·

The language of graph theory, or network science, has proven to be an exceptional tool for addressing myriad problems in neuroscience. Yet, the use of networks is predicated on a critical simplifying assumption: that the quintessential unit of interest in a brain is a dyad -- two nodes (neurons or brain regions) connected by an edge. While rarely mentioned, this fundamental assumption inherently limits the types of neural structure and function that graphs can be used to model. Here, we describe a generalization of graphs that overcomes these limitations, thereby offering a broad range of new possibilities in terms of modeling and measuring neural phenomena. Specifically, we explore the use of \emph{simplicial complexes}, a theoretical notion developed in the field of mathematics known as algebraic topology, which is now becoming applicable to real data due to a rapidly growing computational toolset. We review the underlying mathematical formalism as well as the budding literature applying simplicial complexes to neural data, from electrophysiological recordings in animal models to hemodynamic fluctuations in humans. Based on the exceptional flexibility of the tools and recent ground-breaking insights into neural function, we posit that this framework has the potential to eclipse graph theory in unraveling the fundamental mysteries of cognition.

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