The Reconstruction of Causal Networks in Physiology

Moritz Günther, Jan W. Kantelhardt, Ronny P. Bartsch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


We systematically compare strengths and weaknesses of two methods that can be used to quantify causal links between time series: Granger-causality and Bivariate Phase Rectified Signal Averaging (BPRSA). While a statistical test method for Granger-causality has already been established, we show that BPRSA causality can also be probed with existing statistical tests. Our results indicate that more data or stronger interactions are required for the BPRSA method than for the Granger-causality method to detect an existing link. Furthermore, the Granger-causality method can distinguish direct causal links from indirect links as well as links that arise from a common source, while BPRSA cannot. However, in contrast to Granger-causality, BPRSA is suited for the analysis of non-stationary data. We demonstrate the practicability of the Granger-causality method by applying it to polysomnography data from sleep laboratories. An algorithm is presented, which addresses the stationarity condition of Granger-causality by splitting non-stationary data into shorter segments until they pass a stationarity test. We reconstruct causal networks of heart rate, breathing rate, and EEG amplitude from young healthy subjects, elderly healthy subjects, and subjects with obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that leads to disruption of normal respiration during sleep. These networks exhibit differences not only between different sleep stages, but also between young and elderly healthy subjects on the one hand and subjects with sleep apnea on the other hand. Among these differences are 1) weaker interactions in all groups between heart rate, breathing rate and EEG amplitude during deep sleep, compared to light and REM sleep, 2) a stronger causal link from heart rate to breathing rate but disturbances in respiratory sinus arrhythmia (breathing to heart rate coupling) in subjects with sleep apnea, 3) a stronger causal link from EEG amplitude to breathing rate during REM sleep in subjects with sleep apnea. The Granger-causality method, although initially developed for econometric purposes, can provide a quantitative, testable measure for causality in physiological networks.

Original languageEnglish
Article number893743
JournalFrontiers in Network Physiology
StatePublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2022 Günther, Kantelhardt and Bartsch.


  • Granger causality
  • bivariate phase rectified signal averaging
  • brain-wave amplitudes
  • heartbeat
  • network physiology
  • respiration
  • sleep apnea
  • time series analysis


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