From electrical networks to neural networks
In May 2014, a team of seven researchers from the 'Systems and Modelling' Research Unit at the University of Liège Faculty of Applied Sciences won the 'Neural Connectomics Challenge: From Imaging to Connectivity'. The aim of this prestigious challenge was to predict the map of connections between neurons in the brain. The team presented its methodology and results during a workshop in September. Interview with the three prize-winners - Damien Ernst, Pierre Geurts and Antonio Sutera - who only found out what a connectome was when they signed up for the competition!
How did your 'Connectomics Challenge' adventure begin?
Pierre: It was Antonio who discovered the competition on a website which listed data analysis competitions (www.kaggle.com). He talked to us about the Connectomics Challenge and we gave him the green light to sign up for it. Several of our research subjects were close to the issues addressed by this competition. For example, we have studied gene networks and most of the approaches used in this context can be applied to other types of networks, regardless of their nature.
Damien: It's true that before we signed up for this competition, even we had never heard about connectomes!
What were the various stages of the competition?
Pierre: The aim was to find out how to pair neurons and connect them within the network, based on data which artificially simulated brain activity. We thought we could base our work on a method which we had already designed to study gene networks, but it didn't work. Therefore, we had to develop a new approach.
(1) Antonio Sutera, Arnaud Joly, Vincent François-Lavet, Gilles Louppe, Damien Ernst and Pierre Geurts. Simple connectome inference from partial correlation statistics in calcium imaging. JMLR: Workshop and Conference Proceedings (2014)1–11. Neural Connectomics Workshop.