A Graph Algorithmic Approach to Separate Direct from Indirect Neural Interactions

Network graphs have become a popular tool to represent complex systems composed of many interacting subunits; especially in neuroscience, network graphs are increasingly used to represent and analyze functional interactions between neural sources. Interactions are often reconstructed using pairwise bivariate analyses, overlooking their multivariate nature: it is neglected that investigating the effect of one source on a target necessitates to take all other sources as potential nuisance variables into account; also combinations of sources may act jointly on a given target. Bivariate analyses produce networks that may contain spurious interactions, which reduce the interpretability of the network and its graph metrics. A truly multivariate reconstruction, however, is computationally intractable due to combinatorial explosion in the number of potential interactions. Thus, we have to resort to approximative methods to handle the intractability of multivariate interaction reconstruction, and thereby enable the use of networks in neuroscience. Here, we suggest such an approximative approach in the form of an algorithm that extends fast bivariate interaction reconstruction by identifying potentially spurious interactions post-hoc: the algorithm flags potentially spurious edges, which may then be pruned from the network. This produces a statistically conservative network approximation that is guaranteed to contain non-spurious interactions only. We describe the algorithm and present a reference implementation to test its performance. We discuss the algorithm in relation to other approximative multivariate methods and highlight suitable application scenarios. Our approach is a tractable and data-efficient way of reconstructing approximative networks of multivariate interactions. It is preferable if available data are limited or if fully multivariate approaches are computationally infeasible.

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