The application of a mathematical model linking structural and functional connectomes in severe brain injury
Following severe injuries that result in disorders of consciousness, recovery can occur over many months or years post-injury. While post-injury synaptogenesis, axonal sprouting and functional reorganization are known to occur, the network-level processes underlying recovery are poorly understood. Here, we test a network-level functional rerouting hypothesis in recovery of patients with disorders of consciousness following severe brain injury. This hypothesis states that the brain recovers from injury by restoring normal functional connections via alternate structural pathways that circumvent impaired white matter connections. The so-called network diffusion model, which relates an individual's structural and functional connectomes by assuming that functional activation diffuses along structural pathways, is used here to capture this functional rerouting. We jointly examined functional and structural connectomes extracted from MRIs of 12 healthy and 16 brain-injured subjects. Connectome properties were quantified via graph theoretic measures and network diffusion model parameters. While a few graph metrics showed groupwise differences, they did not correlate with patients' level of consciousness as measured by the Coma Recovery Scale - Revised. There was, however, a strong and significant partial Pearson's correlation (accounting for age and years post-injury) between level of consciousness and network diffusion model propagation time (r = 0.76, p < 0.05, corrected), i.e. the time functional activation spends traversing the structural network. We concluded that functional rerouting via alternate (and less efficient) pathways leads to increases in network diffusion model propagation time. Simulations of injury and recovery in healthy connectomes confirmed these results. This work establishes the feasibility for using the network diffusion model to capture network-level mechanisms in recovery of consciousness after severe brain injury.