A Granger causality measure for point process models of ensemble neural spiking activity

PLoS Comput Biol. 2011 Mar;7(3):e1001110. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1001110. Epub 2011 Mar 24.


The ability to identify directional interactions that occur among multiple neurons in the brain is crucial to an understanding of how groups of neurons cooperate in order to generate specific brain functions. However, an optimal method of assessing these interactions has not been established. Granger causality has proven to be an effective method for the analysis of the directional interactions between multiple sets of continuous-valued data, but cannot be applied to neural spike train recordings due to their discrete nature. This paper proposes a point process framework that enables Granger causality to be applied to point process data such as neural spike trains. The proposed framework uses the point process likelihood function to relate a neuron's spiking probability to possible covariates, such as its own spiking history and the concurrent activity of simultaneously recorded neurons. Granger causality is assessed based on the relative reduction of the point process likelihood of one neuron obtained excluding one of its covariates compared to the likelihood obtained using all of its covariates. The method was tested on simulated data, and then applied to neural activity recorded from the primary motor cortex (MI) of a Felis catus subject. The interactions present in the simulated data were predicted with a high degree of accuracy, and when applied to the real neural data, the proposed method identified causal relationships between many of the recorded neurons. This paper proposes a novel method that successfully applies Granger causality to point process data, and has the potential to provide unique physiological insights when applied to neural spike trains.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology
  • Cats
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Models, Neurological
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Neurons / physiology*