The human brain improvises while its rhythm section keeps up a steady beat. But when it comes to taking on intellectually challenging tasks, groups of neurons tune in to one another for a fraction of a second and harmonize, then go back to improvising, according to new research.
These findings, reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience, could pave the way for more targeted treatments for people with brain disorders marked by fast, slow, or chaotic brain waves, also known as neural oscillations.
Tracking the changing rhythms of the healthy human brain at work advances our understanding of such disorders as Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and even autism, which are characterized in part by offbeat brain rhythms. In jazz lingo, for example, bands of neurons in certain mental illnesses may be malfunctioning because they’re tuning in to blue notes, or playing double time or half time.
“The human brain has 86 billion or so neurons all trying to talk to each other in this incredibly messy, noisy, and electrochemical soup,” says study lead author Bradley Voytek. “Our results help explain the mechanism for how brain networks quickly come together and break apart as needed.”