Causality and synchronisation in complex systems with applications to neuroscience

  • Erik Casagrande

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis presents an investigation, of synchronisation and causality, motivated by problems in computational neuroscience. The thesis addresses both theoretical and practical signal processing issues regarding the estimation of interdependence from a set of multivariate data generated by a complex underlying dynamical system. This topic is driven by a series of problems in neuroscience, which represents the principal background motive behind the material in this work. The underlying system is the human brain and the generative process of the data is based on modern electromagnetic neuroimaging methods . In this thesis, the underlying functional of the brain mechanisms are derived from the recent mathematical formalism of dynamical systems in complex networks. This is justified principally on the grounds of the complex hierarchical and multiscale nature of the brain and it offers new methods of analysis to model its emergent phenomena. A fundamental approach to study the neural activity is to investigate the connectivity pattern developed by the brain’s complex network. Three types of connectivity are important to study: 1) anatomical connectivity refering to the physical links forming the topology of the brain network; 2) effective connectivity concerning with the way the neural elements communicate with each other using the brain’s anatomical structure, through phenomena of synchronisation and information transfer; 3) functional connectivity, presenting an epistemic concept which alludes to the interdependence between data measured from the brain network.
The main contribution of this thesis is to present, apply and discuss novel algorithms of functional connectivities, which are designed to extract different specific aspects of interaction between the underlying generators of the data. Firstly, a univariate statistic is developed to allow for indirect assessment of synchronisation in the local network from a single time series. This approach is useful in inferring the coupling as in a local cortical area as observed by a single measurement electrode. Secondly, different existing methods of phase synchronisation are considered from the perspective of experimental data analysis and inference of coupling from observed data. These methods are designed to address the estimation of medium to long range connectivity and their differences are particularly relevant in the context of volume conduction, that is known to produce spurious detections of connectivity. Finally, an asymmetric temporal metric is introduced in order to detect the direction of the coupling between different regions of the brain. The method developed in this thesis is based on a machine learning extensions of the well known concept of Granger causality. The thesis discussion is developed alongside examples of synthetic and experimental real data. The synthetic data are simulations of complex dynamical systems with the intention to mimic the behaviour of simple cortical neural assemblies. They are helpful to test the techniques developed in this thesis. The real datasets are provided to illustrate the problem of brain connectivity in the case of important neurological disorders such as Epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease. The methods of functional connectivity in this thesis are applied to intracranial EEG recordings in order to extract features, which characterize underlying spatiotemporal dynamics before during and after an epileptic seizure and predict seizure location and onset prior to conventional electrographic signs. The methodology is also applied to a MEG dataset containing healthy, Parkinson’s and dementia subjects with the scope of distinguishing patterns of pathological from physiological connectivity.
Date of Award7 Dec 2010
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorDavid Lowe (Supervisor) & Avgis Hadjipapas (Supervisor)


  • causality
  • synchronisation
  • complex systems
  • neuroscience

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