GAT-LI: a graph attention network based learning and interpreting method for functional brain network classification

Jinlong Hu, Lijie Cao, Tenghui Li, Shoubin Dong, Ping Li

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) imply a spectrum of symptoms rather than a single phenotype. ASD could affect brain connectivity at different degree based on the severity of the symptom. Given their excellent learning capability, graph neural networks (GNN) methods have recently been used to uncover functional connectivity patterns and biological mechanisms in neuropsychiatric disorders, such as ASD. However, there remain challenges to develop an accurate GNN learning model and understand how specific decisions of these graph models are made in brain network analysis. Results: In this paper, we propose a graph attention network based learning and interpreting method, namely GAT-LI, which learns to classify functional brain networks of ASD individuals versus healthy controls (HC), and interprets the learned graph model with feature importance. Specifically, GAT-LI includes a graph learning stage and an interpreting stage. First, in the graph learning stage, a new graph attention network model, namely GAT2, uses graph attention layers to learn the node representation, and a novel attention pooling layer to obtain the graph representation for functional brain network classification. We experimentally compared GAT2 model’s performance on the ABIDE I database from 1035 subjects against the classification performances of other well-known models, and the results showed that the GAT2 model achieved the best classification performance. We experimentally compared the influence of different construction methods of brain networks in GAT2 model. We also used a larger synthetic graph dataset with 4000 samples to validate the utility and power of GAT2 model. Second, in the interpreting stage, we used GNNExplainer to interpret learned GAT2 model with feature importance. We experimentally compared GNNExplainer with two well-known interpretation methods including Saliency Map and DeepLIFT to interpret the learned model, and the results showed GNNExplainer achieved the best interpretation performance. We further used the interpretation method to identify the features that contributed most in classifying ASD versus HC. Conclusion: We propose a two-stage learning and interpreting method GAT-LI to classify functional brain networks and interpret the feature importance in the graph model. The method should also be useful in the classification and interpretation tasks for graph data from other biomedical scenarios.

Original languageEnglish
Article number379
Number of pages20
JournalBMC Bioinformatics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 22 Jul 2021


  • Classification
  • Functional brain networks
  • Graph attention networks
  • Model interpretation
  • Resting-state functional connectivity data

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Structural Biology
  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Applied Mathematics


Dive into the research topics of 'GAT-LI: a graph attention network based learning and interpreting method for functional brain network classification'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this