Model-Free Reconstruction of Excitatory Neuronal Connectivity from Calcium Imaging Signals
A systematic assessment of global neural network connectivity through direct electrophysiological assays has remained technically infeasible, even in simpler systems like dissociated neuronal cultures. We introduce an improved algorithmic approach based on Transfer Entropy to reconstruct structural connectivity from network activity monitored through calcium imaging. We focus in this study on the inference of excitatory synaptic links. Based on information theory, our method requires no prior assumptions on the statistics of neuronal firing and neuronal connections. The performance of our algorithm is benchmarked on surrogate time series of calcium fluorescence generated by the simulated dynamics of a network with known ground-truth topology. We find that the functional network topology revealed by Transfer Entropy depends qualitatively on the time-dependent dynamic state of the network (bursting or non-bursting). Thus by conditioning with respect to the global mean activity, we improve the performance of our method. This allows us to focus the analysis to specific dynamical regimes of the network in which the inferred functional connectivity is shaped by monosynaptic excitatory connections, rather than by collective synchrony. Our method can discriminate between actual causal influences between neurons and spurious non-causal correlations due to light scattering artifacts, which inherently affect the quality of fluorescence imaging. Compared to other reconstruction strategies such as cross-correlation or Granger Causality methods, our method based on improved Transfer Entropy is remarkably more accurate. In particular, it provides a good estimation of the excitatory network clustering coefficient, allowing for discrimination between weakly and strongly clustered topologies. Finally, we demonstrate the applicability of our method to analyses of real recordings of in vitro disinhibited cortical cultures where we suggest that excitatory connections are characterized by an elevated level of clustering compared to a random graph (although not extreme) and can be markedly non-local. Unraveling the general organizing principles of connectivity in neural circuits is a crucial step towards understanding brain function. However, even the simpler task of assessing the global excitatory connectivity of a culture in vitro, where neurons form self-organized networks in absence of external stimuli, remains challenging. Neuronal cultures undergo spontaneous switching between episodes of synchronous bursting and quieter inter-burst periods. We introduce here a novel algorithm which aims at inferring the connectivity of neuronal cultures from calcium fluorescence recordings of their network dynamics. To achieve this goal, we develop a suitable generalization of Transfer Entropy, an information-theoretic measure of causal influences between time series. Unlike previous algorithmic approaches to reconstruction, Transfer Entropy is data-driven and does not rely on specific assumptions about neuronal firing statistics or network topology. We generate simulated calcium signals from networks with controlled ground-truth topology and purely excitatory interactions and show that, by restricting the analysis to inter-bursts periods, Transfer Entropy robustly achieves a good reconstruction performance for disparate network connectivities. Finally, we apply our method to real data and find evidence of non-random features in cultured networks, such as the existence of highly connected hub excitatory neurons and of an elevated (but not extreme) level of clustering.