Searching for Consistent Brain Network Topologies Across the Garden of (Shortest) Forking Paths


The functional interactions between regions of the human brain can be viewed as a network, empowering neuroscientists to leverage tools such as graph theory to obtain insight about brain function. However, obtaining a brain network from functional neuroimaging data inevitably involves multiple steps of data manipulation, which can affect the organisation (topology) of the resulting network and its properties. Test-retest reliability is a gold standard for both basic research and clinical use: a suitable data-processing pipeline for brain networks should recover the same network topology across repeated scan sessions of the same individual. Analyzing resting-state functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (rs-fMRI) recordings from two test-retest studies across short (45 minutes), medium (2-4 weeks) and long term delays (5-16 months), we investigated the reliability of network topologies constructed by applying 576 unique pipelines to the same fMRI data, obtained from considering combinations of atlas type and size, edge definition and thresholding, and use of global signal regression. We adopted the portrait divergence, an information-theoretic criterion to measure differences in network topology across all scales, enabling us to quantify the influence of different pipelines on the overall organisation of the resulting network. Remarkably, our findings reveal that the choice of pipeline plays a fundamental role in determining how reproducible an individual’s brain network topology will be across different scans: there is large and systematic variability across pipelines, such that an inappropriate choice of pipeline can distort the resulting network more than an interval of several months between scans. Across datasets and time-spans, we also identify specific combinations of data-processing steps that consistently yield networks with reproducible topology, enabling us to make recommendations about best practices to ensure high-quality brain networks.