Vortex of cortex: Mysterious spiral signals spotted in human brain

These spirals were observed on the cerebral cortex — the brain's outermost layer.
Mrigakshi Dixit
Representational image
Representational image


Mysterious spiral signals whirling like vortexes have been spotted in the human brain. 

Scientists aren't sure what's creating the spiral signals, but they might be important in executing intricate brain activities. 

The University of Sydney and Fudan University scientists discovered these naturally occurring spiral brain waves across the brain’s outer layer. 

“These spiral patterns exhibit intricate and complex dynamics, moving across the brain’s surface while rotating around central points known as phase singularities. Much like vortices act in turbulence,” said Pulin Gong, associate professor at The University of Sydney, in an official release

MRI scans revealed the spiral signals 

The signals were identified in brain scans of 100 healthy young individuals using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). They emerged both while an individual was resting and while undertaking any tasks. 

These spirals were observed on the cerebral cortex — the brain's outermost layer. The area is responsible for a variety of cognitive functions, including perception, memory, attention, language, and awareness.

The team hypothesizes that spiral brain waves organize cognitive processes by functioning as a link connecting different parts of the brain. This may allow our brains to process information faster when doing complex activities. 

These spiral signals appear to occur at "boundaries" in the brain that normally separate various functional areas. The spiral most likely connects separate areas into networks through movement, allowing for optimal command transmission between diverse brain 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,” said Yiben Xu, Ph.D. student and the lead author of this study.

Finding may help to better understand the certain brain disorders 

The precise role of these brain vortices is unknown, however, they may be useful in understanding the development of brain disorders. The cortex is affected by several neurological illnesses, including Alzheimer's disease.

These spiral signals are likely to be impaired in people who have any of these brain disorders. Medical experts may use this knowledge to examine the role of spiral movement in brain diseases. 

The authors, on the other hand, emphasize that the findings may be used to create advanced computer machines to study the brain's intricate underlying operations. 

“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,” added Gong.

The team mentioned that understanding spiral functioning may help us better comprehend the fundamental functions of the brain. 

The research has been published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour

Study abstract:

The large-scale activity of the human brain exhibits rich and complex patterns, but the spatiotemporal dynamics of these patterns and their functional roles in cognition remain unclear. Here by characterizing moment-by-moment fluctuations of human cortical functional magnetic resonance imaging signals, we show that spiral-like, rotational wave patterns (brain spirals) are widespread during both resting and cognitive task states. These brain spirals propagate across the cortex while rotating around their phase singularity centres, giving rise to spatiotemporal activity dynamics with non-stationary features. The properties of these brain spirals, such as their rotational directions and locations, are task relevant and can be used to classify different cognitive tasks. We also demonstrate that multiple, interacting brain spirals are involved in coordinating the correlated activations and de-activations of distributed functional regions; this mechanism enables flexible reconfiguration of task-driven activity flow between bottom-up and top-down directions during cognitive processing. Our findings suggest that brain spirals organize complex spatiotemporal dynamics of the human brain and have functional correlates to cognitive processing.

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