Measuring symmetry, asymmetry and randomness in neural network connectivity

PLoS One. 2014 Jul 9;9(7):e100805. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0100805. eCollection 2014.


Cognitive functions are stored in the connectome, the wiring diagram of the brain, which exhibits non-random features, so-called motifs. In this work, we focus on bidirectional, symmetric motifs, i.e. two neurons that project to each other via connections of equal strength, and unidirectional, non-symmetric motifs, i.e. within a pair of neurons only one neuron projects to the other. We hypothesise that such motifs have been shaped via activity dependent synaptic plasticity processes. As a consequence, learning moves the distribution of the synaptic connections away from randomness. Our aim is to provide a global, macroscopic, single parameter characterisation of the statistical occurrence of bidirectional and unidirectional motifs. To this end we define a symmetry measure that does not require any a priori thresholding of the weights or knowledge of their maximal value. We calculate its mean and variance for random uniform or Gaussian distributions, which allows us to introduce a confidence measure of how significantly symmetric or asymmetric a specific configuration is, i.e. how likely it is that the configuration is the result of chance. We demonstrate the discriminatory power of our symmetry measure by inspecting the eigenvalues of different types of connectivity matrices. We show that a Gaussian weight distribution biases the connectivity motifs to more symmetric configurations than a uniform distribution and that introducing a random synaptic pruning, mimicking developmental regulation in synaptogenesis, biases the connectivity motifs to more asymmetric configurations, regardless of the distribution. We expect that our work will benefit the computational modelling community, by providing a systematic way to characterise symmetry and asymmetry in network structures. Further, our symmetry measure will be of use to electrophysiologists that investigate symmetry of network connectivity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Computer Simulation*
  • Connectome
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Nerve Net / anatomy & histology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity
  • Stochastic Processes

Grants and funding

This work was partly supported by the European Commission (FP7 Marie Curie Initial Training Network “NAMASEN”, grant n. 264872 (EV, MG), the Royal Society travel grant JP091330-2009/R4 (EV, MG), the Interuniversity Attraction Poles Program (IUAP), initiated by the Belgian Science Policy Office (MG), the Future Emerging Technology programme project “BRAINLEAP” grant n. 306502 (MG), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), grant n. EP/J019534/1 (EV) and the EPSRC e-futures award EFXD12003/EFXD12004 (EV). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.