Algorithms of causal inference for the analysis of effective connectivity among brain regions

Front Neuroinform. 2014 Jul 2;8:64. doi: 10.3389/fninf.2014.00064. eCollection 2014.


In recent years, powerful general algorithms of causal inference have been developed. In particular, in the framework of Pearl's causality, algorithms of inductive causation (IC and IC(*)) provide a procedure to determine which causal connections among nodes in a network can be inferred from empirical observations even in the presence of latent variables, indicating the limits of what can be learned without active manipulation of the system. These algorithms can in principle become important complements to established techniques such as Granger causality and Dynamic Causal Modeling (DCM) to analyze causal influences (effective connectivity) among brain regions. However, their application to dynamic processes has not been yet examined. Here we study how to apply these algorithms to time-varying signals such as electrophysiological or neuroimaging signals. We propose a new algorithm which combines the basic principles of the previous algorithms with Granger causality to obtain a representation of the causal relations suited to dynamic processes. Furthermore, we use graphical criteria to predict dynamic statistical dependencies between the signals from the causal structure. We show how some problems for causal inference from neural signals (e.g., measurement noise, hemodynamic responses, and time aggregation) can be understood in a general graphical approach. Focusing on the effect of spatial aggregation, we show that when causal inference is performed at a coarser scale than the one at which the neural sources interact, results strongly depend on the degree of integration of the neural sources aggregated in the signals, and thus characterize more the intra-areal properties than the interactions among regions. We finally discuss how the explicit consideration of latent processes contributes to understand Granger causality and DCM as well as to distinguish functional and effective connectivity.

Keywords: Dynamic Causal Models; Granger causality; Pearl causality; brain effective connectivity; causal inference; graphical models; latent processes; spatial aggregation.