Scientists from the University of Sydney and Fudan University have discovered mysterious “brain spirals,” which may be the key to understanding brain activity and cognitive information processing. These spiral waves spread throughout the human cerebral cortex and play an important role in the organization of brain activity. Detection of these signals may help in the development of machines directly inspired by the human brain.
The cerebral cortex is the outermost layer of the brain and the largest site of neuronal integration in the central nervous system. It contains 14 to 16 billion neurons and plays a key role in many complex cognitive functions such as attention, perception, awareness, thinking, memory, language and consciousness. Most neuroscience research focuses on the connections and interactions between neurons to understand how the brain works. However, more and more scientists are studying the brain’s broader processes in an attempt to unravel its mysteries.
After studying functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the brains of about a hundred young adults, a team of scientists discovered these strange brain spirals that spread across the cerebral cortex. They were present in the brains of all the study participants. Their exact function has yet to be elucidated, but it appears that these signals play a role in organizing brain activity and cognitive processing.
The properties of these brain spirals, such as their directions and places of rotation, are relevant to task performance and can be used to classify different cognitive tasks. The brain spirals rotate around central points, which they called “phase singularity centers,” and the centers themselves spread across the cortex, creating rich spatiotemporal dynamics. They note that the spirals can travel up to ten centimeters in the cortex. The team also reports that the distribution of spirals in the left and right hemispheres shows a degree of symmetry; they observed that clusters of spirals with opposite directions of rotation tend to be in the same functional areas of the two hemispheres.
“Large-scale human brain activity exhibits rich and complex patterns, but the spatiotemporal dynamics of these patterns and their functional role in cognition remain unclear,” the researchers explain in Nature Human Behaviour. The discovery of these “brain spirals” may help scientists better understand brain activity and develop new technologies that will more accurately replicate brain function.
Brain spirals can become “bridges” for faster information processing and the creation of new technologies that are inspired by the human brain. However, to fully understand and use these spiral brain signals, scientists need to continue research and figure out their exact function.