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  • 2018ticcinelliphd

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Discerning nonlinear brain dynamics from EEG: an application to autistic spectrum disorder in young children

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Publication date2018
Number of pages210
Awarding Institution
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


A challenging goal in neuroscience is that of identifying specific brain patterns characterising autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). Genetic studies, together with investigations based on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and functional MRI, support the idea that distinctive structural features could exist in the ASD brain. In the developing brains of babies and small children, structural differences could provide the basis for different brain connectivity, giving rise to macroscopic effects detectable by e.g. electroencephalography (EEG). A significant body of research has already been conducted in this direction, mainly computing spectral power and coherence. Perhaps due to methodological limitations, together with high variability within and between the cohorts investigated, results have not been in complete agreement, and it is therefore still the case that the diagnosis of ASD is based on behavioural tests and interviews.
This thesis describes a step-by-step characterisation and comparison of brain dynamics from ASD and neurotypical subjects, based on the analysis of multi-probe EEG time-series from male children aged 3-5 years. The methods applied are all ones that take explicit account of the intrinsically non-linear, open, and time-variable nature of the system.
Time-frequency representations were first computed from the time-series to evaluate the spectral power and to categorise the ranges encompassing different activities as low-frequency (LF, 0.8-3.5 Hz), mid-range-frequency (MF, 3.5-12 Hz) or high-frequency (HF, 12-48 Hz). The spatial pathways for the propagation of neuronal activity were then investigated by calculation of wavelet phase coherence. Finally, deeper insight into brain connectivity was achieved by computation of the dynamical cross-frequency coupling between triplets of spatially distributed phases. In doing so, dynamical Bayesian inference was used to find the coupling parameters between the oscillators in the spatially-distributed network. The sets of parameters extracted by this means allowed evaluation of the strength of particular coupling components of the triplet LF, MF→HF, and enabled reconstruction of the coupling functions. By investigation of the form of the coupling functions, the thesis goes beyond conventional measures like the directionality and strength of an interaction, and reveals subtler features of the underlying mechanism.
The measured power distributions highlight differences between ASD and typically developing children in the preferential frequency range for local synchronisation of neuronal activity: the relative power is generally higher at LF and HF, and lower at MF, in the ASD case. The phase coherence maps from ASD subjects also exhibited differences, with lower connectivity at LF and MF in the frontal and fronto-occipital pairs, and higher coherence at high frequencies for central links. There was higher inter-subject variability in a comparison of the forms of coupling functions in the ASD group; and a weaker coupling in their theta-gamma range, which can be linked with the cognitive features of the disorder.
In conclusion, the approach developed in this thesis gave promising preliminary results, suggesting that a biomarker for ASD could be defined in terms of the described patterns of functional and effective connectivity computed from EEG measurements.