Swirling spiral brain signals reveal new insights into brain function

Scientists from the University of Sydney and Fudan University have made an intriguing discovery regarding human brain signals. They have found that these signals form swirling spirals across the outer layer of neural tissue, both during resting and cognitive states. The study, recently published in Nature Human Behaviour, suggests that these brain spirals play a crucial role in organizing brain activity and cognitive processing.

Associate Professor Pulin Gong, the senior author of the study from the School of Physics in the Faculty of Science, believes that this finding has the potential to advance the development of powerful computing machines inspired by the intricate workings of the human brain. Additionally, it opens up new avenues for understanding the brain’s functioning and provides valuable insights into its fundamental processes. By examining the role these spirals play, medical researchers may gain a better understanding of brain diseases like dementia and their effects.

The intricate dynamics of these spiral patterns involve them moving across the brain’s surface while rotating around central points called phase singularities. Similar to vortices in turbulence, these spirals engage in complex interactions that are vital for organizing the brain’s activities. The coexistence of multiple spirals allows for distributed and parallel neural computations, leading to remarkable computational efficiency.

Visual re-creation of brain spirals traveling across the cortex. Credit: Gong et al.

The lead author of the research, Ph.D. student Yiben Xu from the School of Physics, emphasized that the location of the spirals on the cortex plays a crucial role in connecting activity across different sections or networks of the brain. These spirals act as communication bridges, with many of them being large enough to cover multiple networks.

The cortex, also known as the cerebral cortex, constitutes the outermost layer of the brain and is responsible for various complex cognitive functions such as perception, memory, attention, language, and consciousness.

Xu highlighted a key characteristic of these brain spirals: they often emerge at the boundaries that separate different functional networks in the brain. Through their rotational motion, they effectively coordinate the flow of activity between these networks.

The researchers observed that these interacting brain spirals enable flexible reconfiguration of brain activity during tasks involving natural language processing and working memory. They achieve this by changing their rotational directions.

To gather their findings, the scientists analyzed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans of 100 young adults. They adapted methods used to understand complex wave patterns in turbulence to analyze the brain scans.

Traditionally, neuroscience has focused on studying interactions between neurons to comprehend brain function. However, there is a growing scientific field that explores larger processes within the brain to unravel its mysteries.

Associate Professor Gong expressed that by unraveling the mysteries of brain activity and understanding the mechanisms governing its coordination, we can move closer to fully grasping cognition and brain function.

Source: University of Sydney

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