Spotlight on science: Study reveals the brain's white matter "scaffold" of connections

 Image credit: USC Institute of Neurology and Informatics

Neuroscientists have introduced new terminology to describe the brain’s connective neural pathways after completing a study that used social network models to analyze the brain’s communication network. Researchers at USC Institute for Neurology and Informatics are now calling the brain’s network of white matter a “scaffold” of connections through which the brain operates.

“We coined the term white matter ‘scaffold’ because this network defines the information architecture which supports brain function,” researcher John Darrell Van Horn was quoted as saying in USC’s press release on the study. Van Horn was a senior author on the article describing the study, which was published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience on February 11.

While the potential consequences of brain injuries to gray matter are better known, it is not yet well understood just how injuries to white matter affect the brain’s network properties.

To study the effects, USC researchers used MRI data from 110 individuals to analyze simulations of brain injury to white matter pathways. The results were then analyzed through comparison to social network models, which document how large networks of social ties are affected by individual damaged relationships. Researchers specifically focused on understanding how strong the connections between neurons are, revealing instances in which certain connections demonstrated higher sensitivity to injury and instances in which damage to one connection led to a catastrophic ripple effect, resulting in disconnection of a large number of communication pathways.

By using the application of a social network model to analyze the effects of simulated brain injury, the USC Neurology and Informatics team was able to observe connective damage within the context of a larger communications network. The results of the study help to explain why brain injuries have been so unpredictable until this point – such as when some people experience severe brain trauma but can make a full recovery, while others suffer a seemingly small injury but experience irreversible and life-altering loss of brain functions.

The results of this study on the white matter "scaffold" have big implications for the diagnosis and treatment of degenerative neurological diseases and traumatic brain injuries, and contribute to a worldwide effort led by the Human Connectome Project and the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at USC to map all 100 billion neurons and 1,000 trillion connections in the human brain.