MacArthur Genius: Brain Behavior Can Be Entirely Explained with Mathematical Theory

Tuesday, 30 September 2014 - 4:03PM
Tuesday, 30 September 2014 - 4:03PM

Can the brain be explained as a series of graphs? According to Danielle Bassett, who is the youngest MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship winner of the year at 32, graph theory can be used to comprehensively model the brain and explain its behavior to the extent that it can be used to treat disorders such as schizophrenia. 


Graph theory is very literally the study of graphs, which are characterized as points, or "nodes" that are connected by lines, or "edges." It's long been used as a model for other disciplines, such as computer science and chemistry, but those have both historically been more mathematically based than the study of the brain, which has several functions such as creativity that have long eluded mathematization. "It's purely a branch of math. It has nothing to do with neuroscience," Bassett told Scientific American.


In spite of this, Bassett believes that there is untapped potential in using graph theory to model the brain. "There's been a growing appreciation over the last few decades that the brain can be characterized as a network. It is composed of individual parts that can be represented as nodes. And their interactions with each other can be represented as edges... So graph theory is a field that's perfectly appropriate for the kind of system that the brain is."


This does not mean, however, that the complexity of the human brain could possibly be modeled by a single graph. Rather, Bassett uses a set of networks that are constantly reconfiguring depending on the nature of the brain activity. Bassett ominously claimed that understanding the reconfiguration could allow scientists to "predict changes that are important for our behavior" and even "manipulate or optimize [brain] activities."


Although this sounds slightly frightening, the applications of Bassett's research for treating neurological disorders could be profound. "In schizophrenia, we're actually finding that networks reconfigure more quickly than they potentially should," explained Bassett. "And we think that could have implications for the symptoms of disorganized thought that are found in the disease."


If her research definitively proves that brain behavior can be comprehensively mapped using a purely mathematical theory, then it could have reverberating consequences in the field of artificial intelligence. Thus far, one of the main obstacles towards creating a truly human-like AI has been the inability to quantify certain brain functions and reduce them to binary code. But theoretically, if the a brain could be downloaded as a series of graphs, then we could have a mindclone situation on our hands in the near future. 

Science News

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