He et al.
have published an important study that shows correlations between spontaneous fluctuations in slow cortical potentials recorded by electrocorticography and fMRI BOLD signals are maintained across wakefulness, slow-wave sleep, and rapid-eye-movement sleep. Balduzzi et al. note
in their review of the work that the study
... makes it clear that both BOLD and ECoG fluctuations display a pattern of regional correlations, or functional connectivity, which closely reflects those regions' anatomical connectivity. Inverting a well known adagio, what wires together, fires together. Indeed, it seems that it could not be otherwise. If neurons are connected in a certain way, and if they are spontaneously active, functional connectivity is bound to reflect anatomical connectivity, just like traffic patterns must reflect the underlying roadmap.
The reviewers also give a nice description of alternative ideas about what the brain's spontaneous or background activity might be for:
The steady depolarization and firing of neurons, even when the brain is supposedly “at rest,” also called the “default mode” of activity, consumes approximately two-thirds of the brain's already disproportionate energy budget, so it better do something useful. For instance, spontaneous activity may be important for the brain's trillions of synapses, perhaps by keeping them exercised or consolidating and renormalizing their strength. Another notion is that spontaneous activity may be necessary to maintain a fluid state of readiness that allows the cortex to rapidly enter any of a number of available states or firing patterns—a kind of metastability. Theoretical work suggests that the repertoire of available states is maximal under moderate spontaneous activity, and shrinks dramatically with either complete inactivity or hyperactivity. But what kind of neural states? One possibility is that the cortex is like a sea undulating gently, and that evoked or task-related responses would be like small ripples on its surface. This possibility is consistent with fMRI studies, because spontaneous slow fluctuations in BOLD are as large or larger than those evoked by stimuli. Also, it would fit nicely with the trial-to-trial variability of behavioral responses. Another possibility is that there are distinct modes of neuronal activity, such as a READY mode and a GO mode (and possibly an inhibited, STOP mode). Spontaneous activity would then be the READY mode of neuronal firing signaling the absence of preferred stimuli (an ongoing, low-level buzz). By contrast, in the GO mode, neurons, or local populations of neurons, would signal the presence of a preferred stimulus by firing at much higher rates for short periods of time (a brief and loud shout). Unit recording studies have provided plenty of evidence that neurons respond strongly and distinctly to specific stimuli. In this view, the cortex would be more like a sea pierced by sharp islands. On the other hand, the slow hemodynamic response function underlying the BOLD signal may make fMRI partly blind to the distinction between slow, low-amplitude fluctuations in firing and fast, high-amplitude bursts of activity. If there are two modes of neural activity, it bears keeping in mind that neurons in the READY mode would be as necessary as neurons in the GO mode in specifying different cognitive states, just as the background is as necessary as the foreground.
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