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The Human Brain Can Create Structures in Up

to 11 Dimensions
"We found a world that we had never imagined."
SIGNE DEAN
13 JUN 2017
Neuroscientists have used a classic branch of maths in a totally new way to
peer into the structure of our brains. What they've discovered is that the brain
is full of multi-dimensional geometrical structures operating in as many as 11
dimensions.

We're used to thinking of the world from a 3-D perspective, so this may sound
a bit tricky, but the results of this new study could be the next major step in
understanding the fabric of the human brain - the most complex structure we
know of.

This latest brain model was produced by a team of researchers from the Blue
Brain Project, a Swiss research initiative devoted to building a supercomputer-
powered reconstruction of the human brain.

The team used algebraic topology, a branch of mathematics used to describe


the properties of objects and spaces regardless of how they change shape.
They found that groups of neurons connect into 'cliques', and that the number
of neurons in a clique would lead to its size as a high-dimensional geometric
object.

"We found a world that we had never imagined," says lead


researcher, neuroscientist Henry Markram from the EPFL institute in
Switzerland.

"There are tens of millions of these objects even in a small speck of the brain,
up through seven dimensions. In some networks, we even found structures
with up to 11 dimensions."

Human brains are estimated to have a staggering 86 billion neurons, with


multiple connections from each cell webbing in every possible direction,
forming the vast cellular network that somehow makes us capable of thought
and consciousness.
With such a huge number of connections to work with, it's no wonder we still
don't have a thorough understanding of how the brain's neural network
operates. But the new mathematical framework built by the team takes us one
step closer to one day having a digital brain model.

To perform the mathematical tests, the team used a detailed model of


the neocortexthe Blue Brain Project team published back in 2015. The
neocortex is thought to be the most recently evolved part of our brains, and
the one involved in some of our higher-order functions like cognition and
sensory perception.

After developing their mathematical framework and testing it on some virtual


stimuli, the team also confirmed their results on real brain tissue in rats.

According to the researchers, algebraic topology provides mathematical tools


for discerning details of the neural network both in a close-up view at the level
of individual neurons, and a grander scale of the brain structure as a whole.

By connecting these two levels, the researchers could discern high-


dimensional geometric structures in the brain, formed by collections of tightly
connected neurons (cliques) and the empty spaces (cavities) between them.

"We found a remarkably high number and variety of high-dimensional directed


cliques and cavities, which had not been seen before in neural networks,
either biological or artificial," the team writes in the study.

"Algebraic topology is like a telescope and microscope at the same time," says
one of the team, mathematician Kathryn Hess from EPFL.

"It can zoom into networks to find hidden structures, the trees in the forest, and
see the empty spaces, the clearings, all at the same time."

Those clearings or cavities seem to be critically important for brain function.


When researchers gave their virtual brain tissue a stimulus, they saw that
neurons were reacting to it in a highly organised manner.

"It is as if the brain reacts to a stimulus by building [and] then razing a tower of
multi-dimensional blocks, starting with rods (1D), then planks (2D), then cubes
(3D), and then more complex geometries with 4D, 5D, etc," says one of the
team, mathematician Ran Levi from Aberdeen University in Scotland.

"The progression of activity through the brain resembles a multi-dimensional


sandcastle that materialises out of the sand and then disintegrates."

These findings provide a tantalising new picture of how the brain processes
information, but the researchers point out that it's not yet clear what makes the
cliques and cavities form in their highly specific ways.

And more work will be needed to determine how the complexity of these multi-
dimensional geometric shapes formed by our neurons correlates with the
complexity of various cognitive tasks.

But this is definitely not the last we'll be hearing of insights that algebraic
topology can give us on this most mysterious of human organs - the brain.

The study was published in Frontiers of Computational Neuroscience.