Criticality Maximizes Complexity in Neural Tissue

Front Physiol. 2016 Sep 27;7:425. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2016.00425. eCollection 2016.


The analysis of neural systems leverages tools from many different fields. Drawing on techniques from the study of critical phenomena in statistical mechanics, several studies have reported signatures of criticality in neural systems, including power-law distributions, shape collapses, and optimized quantities under tuning. Independently, neural complexity-an information theoretic measure-has been introduced in an effort to quantify the strength of correlations across multiple scales in a neural system. This measure represents an important tool in complex systems research because it allows for the quantification of the complexity of a neural system. In this analysis, we studied the relationships between neural complexity and criticality in neural culture data. We analyzed neural avalanches in 435 recordings from dissociated hippocampal cultures produced from rats, as well as neural avalanches from a cortical branching model. We utilized recently developed maximum likelihood estimation power-law fitting methods that account for doubly truncated power-laws, an automated shape collapse algorithm, and neural complexity and branching ratio calculation methods that account for sub-sampling, all of which are implemented in the freely available Neural Complexity and Criticality MATLAB toolbox. We found evidence that neural systems operate at or near a critical point and that neural complexity is optimized in these neural systems at or near the critical point. Surprisingly, we found evidence that complexity in neural systems is dependent upon avalanche profiles and neuron firing rate, but not precise spiking relationships between neurons. In order to facilitate future research, we made all of the culture data utilized in this analysis freely available online.

Keywords: complex system; information theory; neural avalanche; neural complexity; neural criticality; power law; shape collapse.