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A morpho-density approach to estimating neural connectivity

McAssey, M. P., Bijma, F., Tarigan, B., Van Pelt, J., Van Ooyen, A.*, De Gunst, M. A.* (2014) (* joint senior authors). PloS ONE 9(1): e86526. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0086526. [Full text: PDF]


Neuronal signal integration and information processing in cortical neuronal networks critically depend on the organization of synaptic connectivity. Because of the challenges involved in measuring a large number of neurons, synaptic connectivity is difficult to determine experimentally. Current computational methods for estimating connectivity typically rely on the juxtaposition of experimentally available neurons and applying mathematical techniques to compute estimates of neural connectivity. However, since the number of available neurons is very limited, these connectivity estimates may be subject to large uncertainties.

We use a morpho-density field approach applied to a vast ensemble of model-generated neurons. A morpho-density field (MDF) describes the distribution of neural mass in the space around the neural soma. The estimated axonal and dendritic MDFs are derived from 100,000 model neurons that are generated by a stochastic phenomenological model of neurite outgrowth. These MDFs are then used to estimate the connectivity between pairs of neurons as a function of their inter-soma displacement.

Compared with other density-field methods, our approach to estimating synaptic connectivity uses fewer restricting assumptions and produces connectivity estimates with a lower standard deviation. An important requirement is that the model-generated neurons reflect accurately the morphology and variation in morphology of the experimental neurons used for optimizing the model parameters. As such, the method remains subject to the uncertainties caused by the limited number of neurons in the experimental data set and by the quality of the model and the assumptions used in creating the MDFs and in calculating connectivity.

In summary, MDFs are a powerful tool for visualizing the spatial distribution of axonal and dendritic densities, for estimating the number of potential synapses between neurons with low standard deviation, and for obtaining a greater understanding of the relationship between neural morphology and network connectivity.

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