By focusing on the interaction between neurons, researchers have been able to uncover much about the way our brain’s operate. A new study, though, has zoomed out a bit and found larger swirling patterns that seem to help the brain organize itself across regions.
Studying the brain’s electrical activity has led to some pretty impressive results in the last few years alone. We’ve seen new thinking about how the shape of the brain influences its function; methods to combat depression by magnetically stimulating certain parts of the brain; and a way in which the brain can be primed to learn three times faster than normal.
But much of the science behind these studies focuses on the electrical impulses shared between neurons in somewhat of a linear pattern – much like observing a highway of electrical traffic flowing in different directions. A new study carried out by researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia and Fudan University, China, found that there are larger swirling patterns of electrical activity in our cerebral cortexes, the outer layer of the brain. Continuing the analogy, these are something like wind currents in the air above the highways.
The team found the whirlpool-like patterns by studying fMRI brain scans from 100 young adults.
“These spiral patterns exhibit intricate and complex dynamics, moving across the brain’s surface while rotating around central points known as phase singularities,” said senior author and US associate professor Pulin Gong. “Much like vortices act in turbulence, the spirals engage in intricate interactions, playing a crucial role in organizing the brain’s complex activities.
Study lead author and PhD student Yiben Xu, says that this organization could be taking the form of information transfer between different specialized brain regions as the swirls flow and change direction. The fact that these spirals were found in the cerebral cortex is significant as that’s the region of the brain that carries out some key functions including attention, language, memory, and perception.
“One key characteristic of these brain spirals is that they often emerge at the boundaries that separate different functional networks in the brain,” said Xu. “Through their rotational motion, they effectively coordinate the flow of activity between these networks.
“In our research we observed that these interacting brain spirals allow for flexible reconfiguration of brain activity during various tasks involving natural language processing and working memory, which they achieve by changing their rotational directions,” he added.
Not only do the researchers believe the finding will lead to a better understanding of how our brains function and how to work with diseases like dementia, but they feel it could help enhance computer systems that are based on the ways in which our brains process data.
“The intricate interactions among multiple co-existing spirals could allow neural computations to be conducted in a distributed and parallel manner, leading to remarkable computational efficiency,” said Gong.
The research has been published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.
See imaging from the study in the video below.
Brain spirals travelling across the cortex
Source: University of Sydney