The brain never rests, even when its owner is resting.
What if experts could dig into the brain, like archaeologists, and uncover the history of past experiences? This ability might reveal what makes each of us a unique individual, and it could enable the objective diagnosis of a wide range of neuropsychological diseases. New research at the Weizmann Institute hints that such a scenario is within the realm of possibility: It shows that spontaneous waves of neuronal activity in the brain bear the imprints of earlier events for at least 24 hours after the experience has taken place.
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The new research stems from earlier findings in the lab of Prof. Rafi Malach of the Institute’s Neurobiology Department and others that the brain never rests, even when its owner is resting. When a person is resting with closed eyes — that is, no visual stimulus is entering the brain — the normal bursts of nerve cell activity associated with incoming information are replaced by ultra-slow patterns of neuronal activity. Such spontaneous or “resting” waves travel in a highly organized and reproducible manner through the brain’s outer layer — the cortex — and the patterns they create are complex, yet periodic and symmetrical.
Like hieroglyphics, it seemed that these patterns might have some meaning, and research student Tal Harmelech, under the guidance of Malach and Dr. Son Preminger, set out to uncover their significance. Their idea was that the patterns of resting brain waves may constitute “archives” for earlier experiences. As we add new experiences, the activation of our brain’s networks lead to long-term changes in the links between brain cells, a facility referred to as plasticity. As our experiences become embedded in these connections, they create “expectations” that come into play before we perform any type of mental task, enabling us to anticipate the result. The researchers hypothesized that information about earlier experiences would thus be incorporated into the links between networks of nerve cells in the cortex, and these would show up in the brain’s spontaneously emerging wave patterns.