Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Cortical networks while the brain is at rest...

Pinsk and Kastner, review work (PDF here) of Vincent and colleagues (PDF here) on spontaneous fluctuations of neural activity in monkey brains during anaesthesia.
....studies have shown that the main human cortical networks exhibit correlated spontaneous activity while subjects are at rest. Vincent and colleagues provide the first evidence that such activity is neither restricted to the human brain nor tied to a conscious state. Their findings suggest that fluctuations of spontaneous activity across anatomically interconnected brain regions constitute a fundamental principle of brain organization. Such an interpretation is supported by the fact that organized patterns of brain activity are present in both humans and non-human primates.

As to the functional significance of correlated signal fluctuations, it may be that they maintain the integrity of the networks by reinforcing the synaptic connections between neurons that are essential for network operations in the awake state. Indeed, in stroke patients, the functional connectivity of a brain network has been found to break down when one of its parts is damaged. This loss of connectivity seemed to be correlated with the patients' behavioural impairments. Thus, the new findings may help in understanding both normal and pathological brain function.

Vincent et al. also investigated a possible monkey homologue of a cortical network that thus far has been studied only in humans. This human 'default' network exhibits BOLD activations when subjects are not performing any particular task, and is thought to support uniquely human functions — for example, thinking about ourselves and others, imagining the future, and daydreaming. The authors chose to study a seed region in the posterior cingulate cortex of the monkey brain; this brain region is anatomically similar in both species and is part of the human default network. They identified correlated activity in discrete regions of the frontal, parietal and temporal cortex, which may thus form an analogous default network in the monkey brain.

These findings challenge the view that the default network is uniquely human and is tied to human mental capabilities. But that challenge depends on the assumption that the posterior cingulate cortex is analogous in both species: despite the anatomical similarities, it is not known whether this area serves similar brain functions in the two species. Furthermore, the human default network has been defined in the awake state, whereas this possible monkey homologue was investigated under deep anaesthesia.

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