UNC researcher works to map brain function, could help us understand Parkinson’s, other psychiatric diseases | MyWindsorNow.com

UNC researcher works to map brain function, could help us understand Parkinson’s, other psychiatric diseases

Tyler Silvy

It's not brain surgery but it's close.

University of Northern Colorado assistant professor Katie Morrison, along with collaborator and Pennsylvania State University mathematical neuroscientist Carina Curto, is working to map brain activity at the smallest level in hopes of achieving some large results.

Morrison, who has been working in this field for seven years, answered some questions about her research.

Question — We'll start easy: What is network connectivity in relation to neural activity?

Answer — Network connectivity refers to how neurons in a given area of the brain are connected to each other via synapses. In other words, it gives a map of which neurons are impacting which other neurons through direct connections. Neural activity reflects which neurons are firing and the rate at which they are firing. Since neurons are connected to each other through synapses, when one neuron fires, it impacts the firing rate of all the neurons it is connected to.

Q — How does math come into play when mapping/modeling neural activity?

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A — In our model, we have a node representing each neuron and its associated firing rate, and there are edges between nodes indicating the synaptic connections. We then give equations that govern how the firing rate of a neuron changes over time, reflecting the fact that the firing rate should increase when the neuron receives a positive sum of external input and inputs from the neurons it's connected to. We study how this system of differential equations will evolve over time depending on how the neurons are connected in the network using concepts from differential equations, linear algebra, graph theory and other fields.

Q — What's the big takeaway (what should people know) about your research?

A — We are studying how the structure of network connectivity affects the pattern of firing rates that result. In particular, is that pattern constant over time, does it repeat periodically in a cycle or complex rhythm, or is chaotic and unpredictable? What structures within the network are responsible for which types of activity? We are particularly interested in the impact of network connectivity on the resultant neural activity when there is no external stimulus driving that activity such as during sleep or daydreaming.

Q — Why is this research important?

A — This research will help us understand how the wiring in the brain affects the type of neural activity that may result. As experimentalists map out the connectivity in different brain regions, our work will help with understanding why that connectivity developed based on the computational function that it plays in dictating neural activity. Conversely, our understanding of the relationship between connectivity and neural activity may also help experimentalists identify what types of connectivity they should expect to see based on the different types of neural activity apparent in that brain region. This is particularly important since many psychiatric diseases such as Parkinson's, schizophrenia, and epilepsy are thought to arise as a result of circuit-level changes in connectivity that disrupt normal neural activity patterns.

Tyler Silvy covers education for The Greeley Tribune. Reach him at tsilvy@greeleytribune.com. Connect with him at Facebook.com/TylerSilvy or @TylerSilvy on Twitter.

About this series

“UNC in Focus” is an occasional series that seeks to highlight the myriad research efforts undertaken by University of Northern Colorado faculty. Send ideas to tsilvy@greeleytribune.com.