Neuro-tweets: #hashtagging the brain (w/ video)

Neuro-tweets: #hashtagging the brain
Representation of the #twitterbrain hashtag following lecture tweets

(Medical Xpress) -- We like to think the human brain is special, something different from other brains and information processing systems, but a Cambridge professor set out to test that assumption – by conducting a live experiment using Twitter.

When he spoke at Cambridge Science Festival, Professor Ed Bullmore described how new ways of looking at the organisation of the show that it has a surprising amount in common with the worm brain, computer chips, stock markets, and many other complex systems.

According to Professor Bullmore: “We know that the brain is fiendishly complicated in detail. Our brains have billions of nerve cells connected by trillions of synapses, so trying to figure out how it works by focusing on one cell or one synapse at a time is impossible.

“But we can use some simple mathematics to give us a different vision of the brain – losing sight of many of the details but clarifying the complex overall pattern of connections that make up a brain network.”

Viewed this way, it turns out that human brain networks represent a balance between high efficiency of information transfer and low connection cost.

Professor Bullmore discussed how different types of thinking seem to depend on different patterns of network connection and how human brains can shift rapidly between different network configurations over time. He also showed how this new research on normal brain function is beginning to change the way we think about mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia, and their treatment.

“This way of looking at the human brain tells us a lot about how it is organised in its own right. But it also allows us to ask some more general questions that might not have made sense a few years ago, such as what’s special about the human brain compared to other networks?

“You might say we are ‘taking the brain out of the skull’ to look at it directly in comparison to many superficially different ,” says Professor Bullmore.

To demonstrate this directly, Professor Bullmore conducted a live experiment during his talk at Cambridge Science Festival, the UK’s largest free science festival, as part of a collaboration between Cambridge Neuroscience and the University Communications Office.

Members of the audience and other Twitter users were asked to tweet during the lecture about the concepts that were being discussed, using the hashtag #csftwitterbrain. At the end of the talk Professor Bullmore displayed the resulting image showing the interconnectivity of the hashtagged tweets, and explained how Twitter networks can be compared to the human brain network.

“We found that the #twitterbrain network was somewhat like the brain network in being small-world and modular with highly connected hub nodes; however the brain network was more clustered and less efficient than the twitter network. So at first sight there were some points in common and some points of difference between these two networks.”

“One possible explanation for the differences is that the human brain is embedded in physical space and will nearly minimize connection cost, whereas the twitter network is likely to be less constrained by the extra cost of making longer distance connections (tweets) between people.”

“It has been intriguing to see the spectacle of watching the twitter network grow or evolve over the course of several days. And I have learnt a lot about the power of new media to engage and communicate, and the potential scientific value of using to map and measure social networks.”

Brain networks video

Each node of the network represents a different brain region and is colour-coded according to the larger area is located in. Pairs of nodes are linked if the activity of the two regions is found to synchronize a lot of the time during an fMRI brain scan, and the size of nodes represents how many other regions a given node is linked to.

The resulting network is used to analyze information flow in brains of healthy people as well as patients with disorders such as schizophrenia. To better understand these networks, we can decompose them into communities of nodes which are more densely connected with each other than with the rest of the network. This gives rise to a different picture, where the nodes are layed out in space according to the communities they participate in, rather than their location in real anatomical space.

The above video shows the transition from a network showing the connections between different regions in their anatomical locations, and a new layout emphasizing the network's structure, with nodes relocated and re-coloured based on their membership in network communities.

Citation: Neuro-tweets: #hashtagging the brain (w/ video) (2011, May 9) retrieved 23 July 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

May 09, 2011
Bottom line is humans will learn to become immortal by the year 2060 or sooner.

May 09, 2011
Bottom line?, wtf?, human life spans had nothing to do with the article. Personally, I feel that comparing brain networks to twitter networks is an exercise in futility, based solely on the observation that we do *not* understand the function of brain networks at such a low level. Twitter networks are also one-way but the brain has interdependent connections, which is a totally different ball-game.

May 10, 2011
Yes, but it is a good start. Would it be wrong to say man and machine are similar, and as time goes on they will eventually merge? I see you are in the business, though I have done some research in the field, and have done lots of thinking about robotics and networks for years. Thank you for responding.

May 10, 2011
Just out of curiosity, how much memory do you believe the average human mind stores in information in megabytes or gigabytes in comparison to a hard disk drive? And how much memory do you believe the average human mind stores in information in megabytes or gigabytes in comparison to RAM? In 1986 Tom Landauer estimated the human brain held about 200 megabytes of information when compared to hard disk drives.

May 10, 2011
One more thing. had an article a few months back about how human memory stores information. I am curious if you familiar with the article. It took complex frames of information and consolidated them into smaller frames to cut down on storage space, sort of speak. If you know which article I am talking about, then I would appreciate feedback. Thanks.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more