Air Traffic Control Calling the Brain

Neurons working together have different internal clocks to keep the brain organized

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) There are areas of the brain to control learning, areas to control movement, areas to control the senses. How are all those areas working at the same time without clashing?

The brain is a busy place with different areas to control different activities, and each of the areas “talk” to each other. Science is starting to learn that the different areas operate at different speeds, which acts like air traffic control for the brain.

As science learns more about the speed of networks, it may lead to a better understanding of some psychiatric conditions.

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A study led by Jeorg Hipp, PhD, of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, used a procedure called magnetoencephalography (MEG) to look at how quickly brain networks work. 

Other methods of brain imaging, like MRIs, look at the level of activation in the brain by looking at the blood flow; scientists assume that higher blood flow equals more neuron activity. 

MEG looks at magnetic fields in the networks of the brain. Hipp has developed a way of looking at the MEG information to determine the speeds of different processing tasks in those networks.

Another way to think of it is like broadcasting from radio stations. Hipp can learn what “stations” different brain tasks are “playing on” to learn more about how they all are operating at once.

Hipp’s study looked at the brains of 43 healthy people and found that different areas of the brain operated at different speeds or frequencies.

For example, an area important for learning and memory, the hippocampus, operated at a relatively slow rate, 5 hertz.  Other areas, like those controlling movement, operated at much faster rates, 32 to 45 hertz.

The authors conclude that the differences in processing speed are likely the brain’s way of keeping things organized. Because local brain networks get input from many different areas in the brain, different rates of processing help keep information flowing smoothly.

The authors think that this new way of looking at the brain may be useful in the future for understanding disease and perhaps diagnosing disease. More research is needed on larger groups of people to know what speeds of processing are normal – and to determine how these might change in neurological disease.

The study was published in the May 6 issue of Nature Neuroscience. Hipp has filed a patent in conjunction with the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf for the method used in this study.

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Review Date: 
May 11, 2012
Last Updated:
July 9, 2012