Bookmark and Share

This article is in the news archive.

Brains, Minds and their Connectivity

We like to think the human brain is special, something different from other brains and information processing systems. But is it?

In an attempt to answer this question a Twitter Brain team assembled, pictured left, information below, and, working with Cambridge Neuroscientist Professor Ed Bullmore, they set to test that assumption – by conducting a live experiment using Twitter.

Speaking at Cambridge Science Festival on the 17th March, 2011, Professor Ed Bullmore described how new ways of looking at the network organisation of the human brain show that it has a surprising amount in common with the worm brain, computer chips, stock markets, and many other complex systems.

According to Professor Bullmore, pictured right:

"We know that the brain is fiendishly complicated in detail. Our brains have billions of nerve cells connected by trillions of synapses, so trying to figure out how it works by focusing on one cell or one synapse at a time is impossible.

"But we can use some simple mathematics to give us a different vision of the brain - losing sight of many of the details but clarifying the complex overall pattern of connections that make up a brain network."

Viewed this way, it turns out that human brain networks represent a balance between high efficiency of information transfer and low connection cost.

Professor Bullmore discussed how different types of thinking seem to depend on different patterns of network connection and how human brains can shift rapidly between different network configurations over time. He also showed how this new research on normal brain function is beginning to change the way we think about mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia, and their treatment.

"This way of looking at the human brain tells us a lot about how it is organised in its own right. But it also allows us to ask some more general questions that might not have made sense a few years ago, such as what's special about the human brain compared to other networks?

"You might say we are 'taking the brain out of the skull' to look at it directly in comparison to many superficially different information processing systems," says Professor Bullmore.

To demonstrate this directly, Professor Bullmore conducted a live experiment during his talk at Cambridge Science Festival, the UK's largest free science festival.

This interdisciplinary public engagement project was a collaboration between Cambridge Neuroscience and the University Communications Office.

Members of the audience and other Twitter users were encouraged to tweet about the brain and other networks, using the tag #csftwitterbrain, and at the end of his talk Professor Bullmore demonstrated how the resulting Twitter network can be compared to the human brain network, pictured left.

See how the Twitter Brain evolved during the lecture in the picture left with a description of Twitter Brain using via link.

 Speaking prior to the lecture Ed proclaimed:

"The point of the experiment is not to show that the human brain network is the same as a Twitter network - I would be surprised if that was the result, but it will be interesting to see what happens!

"The more important point is to show how this new way of looking at the brain can perhaps help us make some unexpected and interesting connections between the networks in our heads and the many other networks around us."

Speaking post lecture Ed commented:

"Using Twitter to construct a social network and then comparing it to the human brain network was a genuinely informative experiment for me

We found that the twitterbrain network was somewhat like the brain network in being small-world and modular with highly connected hub nodes; however the brain network was more clustered and less efficient than the twitter network. So at first sight there were some points in common and some points of difference between these two information processing networks.


One possible explanation for the differences is that the human brain is embedded in physical space and will nearly minimize connection cost, whereas the twitter network is likely to be less constrained by the extra cost of making longer distance connections (tweets) between people.


I have also been intrigued by the unexpectedly beautiful spectacle of watching the twitter network grow or evolve over the course of several days. And I have learnt a lot about the power of "new" media to engage and communicate, and the potential scientific value of using Twitter to map and measure social networks.


I want to thank the following people for their creativity and expertise in designing and delivering the twitterbrain experiment: Hannah Critchlow, Barney Brown, Nick Saffell, Naaman Tammuz and Petra Vertes."


The Twitter Brain team, pictured below left included:

The Twitter Brain Idea Conception and coordination: Dr. Hannah Critchlow (back row, left) Cambridge Neuroscience Strategic Manager, working with Mr Nick Saffell (back row, right), University Communications Office

Twitter Brain Coding: Mr. Barney Brown (front row left) on behalf of the University Communications Office

Twitter Brain Scientific Visualisation: Dr. Petra Vertes (front row right) and Mr. Naaman Tammuz on behalf of Cambridge Neuroscience and the Brain Mapping Unit, Department of Psychiatry, University  of Cambridge

Twitter Brain Presenter: Professor Ed Bullmore, Department of Psychiatry, Brain Mapping Unit, Behavioural Clinical Neuroscience Institute, University of Cambridge, GlaxoSmithKline

Ed’s biosketch: Ed Bullmore trained in clinical medicine at the University of Oxford and St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, with specialist clinical training in psychiatry at St George’s Hospital. His research career started in the early 1990s as a Wellcome Trust (Advanced) Research Fellow and was initially focused on mathematical analysis of neurophysiological time series. Since moving to Cambridge as Professor of Psychiatry in 1999, his  interest in systems-level analysis of brain function and structure has increasingly focused on using tools drawn from wavelet analysis and graph theory to investigate complex brain networks identified in human neuroimaging data (fMRI, MRI and MEG).  Since 2005, he has worked half-time for GlaxoSmithKline as Head of GSK’s Clinical Unit in Cambridge and Vice-President, Experimental Medicine. He is Deputy Director of the Wellcome Trust/GSK funded training programme in Translational Medicine and Therapeutics, Clinical Director of the Wellcome Trust/MRC funded Behavioural & Clinical Neuroscience Institute, and an honorary Consultant Psychiatrist and co-director of CAMEO in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Foundation NHS Trust. Ed has published about 270 peer-reviewed articles and his h-index is 67. He has been elected FRCP, FRCPsych and FMedSci.

Ed’s recent relevant publications which may be of interest to you:

Fornito A, Zalesky A, Bassett DS, Meunier D, Ellison-Wright I, Yücel M, Wood SJ, Shaw K, O'Connor J, Nertney D, Mowry BJ, Pantelis C, Bullmore ET. Genetic Influences on Cost-Efficient Organization of Human Cortical Functional Networks. J Neurosci. 2011 Mar 2;31(9):3261-3270.

Meunier D, Lambiotte R, Bullmore ET. Modular and hierarchically modular organization of brain networks. Front Neurosci. 2010 Dec 8;4:200.

Bassett DS, Bullmore ET. Human brain networks in health and disease. Curr Opin Neurol. 2009 Aug;22(4):340-7. Review.

Many thanks to all of our Tweeters who participated in this experiment and made up the Twitter Brain!

Posted on 13/04/2011

Further news

Go to the news index page.