Discovering Brain Mechanisms Using Network Analysis and Causal Modeling

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Colombo, Matteo; Weinberger, Naftali
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Mechanist philosophers have examined several strategies scientists use for discovering causal mechanisms in neuroscience. Findings about the anatomical organization of the brain play a central role in several such strategies. Little attention has been paid, however, to the use of network analysis and causal modeling techniques for mechanism discovery. In particular, mechanist philosophers have not explored whether and how these strategies incorporate information about the anatomical organization of the brain. This paper clarifies these issues in the light of the distinction between structural, functional and effective connectivity. Specifically, we examine two quantitative strategies currently used for causal discovery from functional neuroimaging data: dynamic causal modeling and probabilistic graphical modeling. We show that dynamic causal modeling uses findings about the brain’s anatomical organization to improve the statistical estimation of parameters in an already specified causal model of the target brain mechanism. Probabilistic graphical modeling, in contrast, makes no appeal to the brain’s anatomical organization, but lays bare the conditions under which correlational data suffice to license reliable inferences about the causal organization of a target brain mechanism. The question of whether findings about the anatomical organization of the brain can and should constrain the inference of causal networks remains open, but we show how the tools supplied by graphical modeling methods help in addressing it.