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Front Neurol. 2018 Jun 12;9:439. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2018.00439. eCollection 2018.

Network Analysis in Disorders of Consciousness: Four Problems and One Proposed Solution (Exponential Random Graph Models).

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Department of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, United States.
Brain Injury Research Center, Department of Neurosurgery, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, United States.


In recent years, the study of the neural basis of consciousness, particularly in the context of patients recovering from severe brain injury, has greatly benefited from the application of sophisticated network analysis techniques to functional brain data. Yet, current graph theoretic approaches, as employed in the neuroimaging literature, suffer from four important shortcomings. First, they require arbitrary fixing of the number of connections (i.e., density) across networks which are likely to have different "natural" (i.e., stable) density (e.g., patients vs. controls, vegetative state vs. minimally conscious state patients). Second, when describing networks, they do not control for the fact that many characteristics are interrelated, particularly some of the most popular metrics employed (e.g., nodal degree, clustering coefficient)-which can lead to spurious results. Third, in the clinical domain of disorders of consciousness, there currently are no methods for incorporating structural connectivity in the characterization of functional networks which clouds the interpretation of functional differences across groups with different underlying pathology as well as in longitudinal approaches where structural reorganization processes might be operating. Finally, current methods do not allow assessing the dynamics of network change over time. We present a different framework for network analysis, based on Exponential Random Graph Models, which overcomes the above limitations and is thus particularly well suited for clinical populations with disorders of consciousness. We demonstrate this approach in the context of the longitudinal study of recovery from coma. First, our data show that throughout recovery from coma, brain graphs vary in their natural level of connectivity (from 10.4 to 14.5%), which conflicts with the standard approach of imposing arbitrary and equal density thresholds across networks (e.g., time-points, subjects, groups). Second, we show that failure to consider the interrelation between network measures does lead to spurious characterization of both inter- and intra-regional brain connectivity. Finally, we show that Separable Temporal ERGM can be employed to describe network dynamics over time revealing the specific pattern of formation and dissolution of connectivity that accompany recovery from coma.


coma; disorders of consciousness; exponential random graph model; functional magnetic resonance imaging; network analysis

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