Studying Twitter Memes Is Helping Researchers Understand Mysteries of the Brain

Keep RTing, for science

(Photo: Getty)
(Photo: Getty) (Photo: Getty Images)

A model for tracking viral memes on Twitter has found a better use.

Researchers from Switzerland and Indiana University are using data mapping methods originally created to track the spread of information on social networks (specifically Twitter) to trace how information spreads through the human brain.

The international team found that applying the social network models to the brain reveals specific connections and nodes that could be responsible for higher forms of cognition. Their results were published today in the scientific journal Neuron.

“Like information in social networks, information in the brain is traveling along connections that form complex networks. It was not too far a stretch for us to think of the brain this way,” Olaf Sporns, the senior author on the study, said according to Medical Xpress.

For the study, which is playfully named “twitterbrain,” the team performed diffusion spectrum imaging on the brains of 40 research volunteers in order to map regions and long-range connections in the brain. They then applied the information tracking model originally used by Yong-Yeol Ahn, an expert on complex networks who is one of the study’s other authors, for tracing memes and predicting which will go viral.

The aspect of virality itself doesn’t accurately describe how the brain functions, but the tracking methods provided insight regarding the pattern and speed of the spread of information within the brain. The researchers were able to track a signal from its origin and detect how quickly it spread. They were also able to identify or infer which connections were used at the beginning of a signal to create the quickest path through a network.

“Each thought or action involves multiple signals, cascading through the brain, turning on other nodes as they spread. Where these cascades come together, that’s where integration of multiple signals can occur. We think that this sort of integration is a hallmark of higher cognition,” Mr. Sporns also said.

Maybe Twitter isn’t a waste of time.

Studying Twitter Memes Is Helping Researchers Understand Mysteries of the Brain