Even when our eyes are closed, the visual centers in our brain are humming with activity. Weizmann Institute scientists and others have shown in the last few years that the magnitude of sense-related activity in a brain that’s disengaged from seeing, touching, etc., is quite similar to that of one exposed to a stimulus.
New research at the Institute has now revealed details of that activity, explaining why, even though our sense centers are working, we don’t experience sights or sounds when there’s nothing coming in through our sensory organs.
The previous studies of Prof. Rafael Malach and research student Yuval Nir of the Neurobiology Department used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity in active and resting states. But fMRI is an indirect measurement of brain activity; it can’t catch the nuances of the pulses of electricity that characterize neuron activity.
Together with Prof. Itzhak Fried of the University of California at Los Angeles and a team at the EEG unit of the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, the researchers found a unique source of direct measurement of electrical activity in the brain: data collected from epilepsy patients who underwent extensive testing, including measurement of neuronal pulses in various parts of their brain, in the course of diagnosis and treatment.
An analysis of this data showed conclusively that electrical activity does indeed take place, even in the absence of stimuli. But the nature of the electrical activity differs if a person is experiencing a sensory event or undergoing its absence. In results that appeared recently in Nature Neuroscience, the scientists showed that during rest, brain activity consists of extremely slow fluctuations, as opposed to the short, quick bursts that typify a response associated with a sensory percept. This difference appears to be the reason we don’t experience hallucinations or hear voices that aren’t there during rest. The resting oscillations appear to be strongest when we sense nothing at all – during dream-free sleep.
The slow fluctuation pattern can be compared to a computer screensaver. Though its function is still unclear, the researchers have a number of hypotheses. One possibility is that neurons, like certain philosophers, must “think” in order to be. Survival, therefore, is dependant on a constant state of activity. Another suggestion is that the minimal level of activity enables a quick start when a stimulus eventually presents itself, something like a getaway car with the engine running. Nir: “In the old approach, the senses are ‘turned on’ by the switch of an outside stimulus. This is giving way to a new paradigm in which the brain is constantly active, and stimuli change and shape that activity.”
Malach: “The use of clinical data enabled us to solve a riddle of basic science in a way that would have been impossible with conventional methods. These findings could, in the future, become the basis of advanced diagnostic techniques.” Such techniques might not necessarily require the cooperation of the patient, allowing them to be used, for instance, on people in a coma or on young children.
Prof. Rafael Malach’s research is supported by the Nella and Leon Benoziyo Center for Neurological Diseases; the Carl and Micaela Einhorn-Dominic Brain Research Institute; Ms. Vera Benedek, Israel; Benjamin and Seema Pulier Charitable Foundation, Inc.; and Ms. Mary Helen Rowen, New York, NY. Prof. Malach is the incumbent of the Barbara and Morris Levinson Professorial Chair in Brain Research.
The Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, is one of the world's top-ranking multidisciplinary research institutions. Noted for its wide-ranging exploration of the natural and exact sciences, the Institute is home to 2,600 scientists, students, technicians, and supporting staff. Institute research efforts include the search for new ways of fighting disease and hunger, examining leading questions in mathematics and computer science, probing the physics of matter and the universe, creating novel materials, and developing new strategies for protecting the environment.
Jennifer Manning | Newswise Science News
Further reports about: > Brain > Brain Activity > Brain Research > EEG > Epilepsy > Hallucinations > Weizmann > activity > electrical activity > fMRI > functional magnetic resonance imaging > neuron activity > pulses of electricity > sense > sense centers > sense-related activity > sensory organs > stimulus
Ion treatments for cardiac arrhythmia — Non-invasive alternative to catheter-based surgery
20.01.2017 | GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung GmbH
Seeking structure with metagenome sequences
20.01.2017 | DOE/Joint Genome Institute
An important step towards a completely new experimental access to quantum physics has been made at University of Konstanz. The team of scientists headed by...
Yersiniae cause severe intestinal infections. Studies using Yersinia pseudotuberculosis as a model organism aim to elucidate the infection mechanisms of these...
Researchers from the University of Hamburg in Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, have synthesized a new superconducting material by growing a few layers of an antiferromagnetic transition-metal chalcogenide on a bismuth-based topological insulator, both being non-superconducting materials.
While superconductivity and magnetism are generally believed to be mutually exclusive, surprisingly, in this new material, superconducting correlations...
Laser-driving of semimetals allows creating novel quasiparticle states within condensed matter systems and switching between different states on ultrafast time scales
Studying properties of fundamental particles in condensed matter systems is a promising approach to quantum field theory. Quasiparticles offer the opportunity...
Among the general public, solar thermal energy is currently associated with dark blue, rectangular collectors on building roofs. Technologies are needed for aesthetically high quality architecture which offer the architect more room for manoeuvre when it comes to low- and plus-energy buildings. With the “ArKol” project, researchers at Fraunhofer ISE together with partners are currently developing two façade collectors for solar thermal energy generation, which permit a high degree of design flexibility: a strip collector for opaque façade sections and a solar thermal blind for transparent sections. The current state of the two developments will be presented at the BAU 2017 trade fair.
As part of the “ArKol – development of architecturally highly integrated façade collectors with heat pipes” project, Fraunhofer ISE together with its partners...
19.01.2017 | Event News
10.01.2017 | Event News
09.01.2017 | Event News
20.01.2017 | Awards Funding
20.01.2017 | Materials Sciences
20.01.2017 | Life Sciences