Susanna Pilny for redOrbit.com – @PlinyTheShorter
If you’re feeling low about life today, just remember: Your brain is nearly ideal.
At least, that’s what researchers out of Northeastern University and Budapest University of Technology and Economics have found. According to them, the network of connections between parts of the brain is almost ideal, allowing us to expedite the transfer of information across different parts of brain.
“An optimal network in the brain would have the smallest number of connections possible, to minimize cost, and at the same time it would have maximum navigability–that is, the most direct pathways for routing signals from any possible source to any possible destination,” explained physicist Dmitri Krioukov, study co-author.
Or in other words, our brains seem to have evolved to operate at peak capacity.
So how did they figure out the optimal brain network?
John Nash (the one with a beautiful mind) contributed a lot to game theory—a standard tool to study the behavior of a population with given incentives and costs.
Using game theory, the researchers created sophisticated statistical analyses of the ideal brain network. In these analyses, the ideal network becomes a sort of game whose purpose is to find the optimal trade-off between easy navigability (the incentive) and network cost. This allowed them to construct a map of the ideal brain network, which they compared to the brain’s actual network.
As it turned out, 89% of the connections in the ideal brain were also in real human brains.
“That means the brain was evolutionarily designed to be very, very close to what our algorithm shows,” Krioukov said.
Implications beyond Darwin
But the findings, which were published in Nature Communications, have ramifications beyond those of evolutionary progress. If we know, ideally, how the brain should connect, then we know that those connections are probably required for normal brain function.
So if the network links break down, certain neurological diseases can arise—meaning that if we can determine what’s no longer functioning ideally, new treatments can be developed.
“At the end of the day, what we are trying to do is to fix the diseased network so that it can resume its normal function,” said Krioukov.