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James S. McDonnell Foundation Workshop
Understanding recovery from brain injury: Putting network models to work
November 5-8, 2004

Meeting Précis

Network theories of cognition suggest that units in the brain process information in some coordinated spatial and temporal order to support cognition and behavior. In bridging between the neural dynamics and cognitive function, most theories have made use of traditional neuropsychological studies with patient populations, wherein cognitive functions are ascribed to the area(s) that are damaged in the patients.

When complemented with neuroimaging, such information provides clues about "where" in the brain certain cognitive operations are likely to take place, but provide virtually no information on "how" these operations occur in the intact brain - or how cognitive operations are disturbed by injury or disease processes. We do know that damage to specific brain regions results in disruption of a network via damage to nodes (specific brain regions) and the connections among nodes (axons). What is unclear is how to attribute cognitive and behavioral dysfunction to disruption of the processing in localized region versus dysfunction across distributed networks.

A better appreciation of the network dynamics in the damaged nervous system can impact on two levels. First, in terms of neuroscience theory, if we find that many of the dysfunctions come about because of network reorganization, then this will impact on how we consider the translation of brain function to behavior. Second, examining the operations of the damaged brain from the perspective of interacting neural systems will provide new insights into the reorganization that takes place after damage. By focusing directly on the operations of the damaged brain, we may be able to define better the conditions that determine how networks will reorganize (e.g., locations, severity, and extent of the neurological damage). Coupled with detailed neuropsychological and psychosocial information on the patient, new principles that govern brain network reorganization could better inform rehabilitation strategies.

To achieve the research mandate/vision will require integration of efforts in clinical, cognitive and computational neuroscience. Generally (and perhaps obviously) speaking, the clinical domain acts to provide the link to patients, ensuring thorough characterization of the patient in terms of neuropsychology and neurology; the cognitive domains helps to frame the task selection that may be used to investigate brain function, and computational domain acts to provide new means of appreciating neural dynamics either through analysis of empirical data or through building of simulated systems showing characteristics of the empirical data (these two are necessarily related). The critical part of the research effort is that these three domains must interact directly, becoming mutually reinforcing wherein advances or problems that arise on one domain impact directly on the other two. With this in mind, we are organizing a planning meeting to discuss a program of research with the overall goal of combining network approaches to brain function to understand the damaged brain.

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