Date of Award

Spring 2-2017

Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition


Robert Kass

Second Advisor

Michael Tarr


Human cognition involves dynamic neural activities in distributed brain areas. For studying such neural mechanisms, magnetoencephalography (MEG) and electroencephalography (EEG) are two important techniques, as they non-invasively detect neural activities with a high temporal resolution. Recordings by MEG/EEG sensors can be approximated as a linear transformation of the neural activities in the brain space (i.e., the source space). However, we only have a limited number sensors compared with the many possible locations in the brain space; therefore it is challenging to estimate the source neural activities from the sensor recordings, in that we need to solve the underdetermined inverse problem of the linear transformation. Moreover, estimating source activities is typically an intermediate step, whereas the ultimate goal is to understand what information is coded and how information flows in the brain. This requires further statistical analysis of source activities. For example, to study what information is coded in different brain regions and temporal stages, we often regress neural activities on some external covariates; to study dynamic interactions between brain regions, we often quantify the statistical dependence among the activities in those regions through “connectivity” analysis. Traditionally, these analyses are done in two steps: Step 1, solve the linear problem under some regularization or prior assumptions, (e.g., each source location being independent); Step 2, do the regression or connectivity analysis. However, biases induced in the regularization in Step 1 can not be adapted in Step 2 and thus may yield inaccurate regression or connectivity results. To tackle this issue, we present novel one-step methods of regression or connectivity analysis in the source space, where we explicitly modeled the dependence of source activities on the external covariates (in the regression analysis) or the cross-region dependence (in the connectivity analysis), jointly with the source-to-sensor linear transformation. In simulations, we observed better performance by our models than by commonly used two-step approaches, when our model assumptions are reasonably satisfied. Besides the methodological contribution, we also applied our methods in a real MEG/EEG experiment, studying the spatio-temporal neural dynamics in the visual cortex. The human visual cortex is hypothesized to have a hierarchical organization, where low-level regions extract low-level features such as local edges, and high-level regions extract semantic features such as object categories. However, details about the spatio-temporal dynamics are less understood. Here, using both the two-step and our one-step regression models in the source space, we correlated neural responses to naturalistic scene images with the low-level and high-level features extracted from a well-trained convolutional neural network. Additionally, we also studied the interaction between regions along the hierarchy using the two-step and our one-step connectivity models. The results from the two-step and the one-step methods were generally consistent; however, the one-step methods demonstrated some intriguing advantages in the regression analysis, and slightly different patterns in the connectivity analysis. In the consistent results, we not only observed an early-to-late shift from low-level to high-level features, which support feedforward information flow along the hierarchy, but also some novel evidence indicating non-feedforward information flow (e.g., topdown feedback). These results can help us better understand the neural computation in the visual cortex. Finally, we compared the empirical sensitivity between MEG and EEG in this experiment, in detecting dependence between neural responses and visual features. Our results show that the less costly EEG was able to achieve comparable sensitivity with that in MEG when the number of observations was about twice of that in MEG. These results can help researchers empirically choose between MEG and EEG when planning their experiments with limited budgets.