Got music on the brain? Is it Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, or something a bit less august?
For researchers who study the electrical activity in our heads – the figurative ‘music’ of our brains – the sound is more like the latter; namely, a cacophony. This is because the brain’s electrical signals are layered on top of one another in a crazy, un-chromatic scale. A single cubic millimeter of brain tissue can hold 100,000 nerve cells, and each cell contributes its own unique frequency. Trying to listen to all this noise is a bit like holding a microphone in a crowd of people: some voices will stand out, the clarity will be compromised by those nearby.
As certain disorders such as epilepsy and Parkinson’s are known to have a distinct electrical signature, however, neurologists have been eager to study the brain’s signals – and the music that lies beneath all the noise. A better understanding of these signals could have a direct impact on the diagnosis and treatment of many brain illnesses, and even help repair neurological damage.
A team of Norwegian researchers recently took a huge step in that direction by developing a new method of analyzing the brain’s electrical activity. Instead of focusing on the entire signal from one of the brain’s regions, researchers focused only on low frequency signals called “local field potential.” Registering these signals gives a cleaner and clearer picture of the electrical signal as a whole.
In a paper published last week in the journal Neuron, researcher Gaute Einevoll, of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, noted the treatment potential of this analysis.
“Electrodes are already being used to measure brain cell activity related to seizures in epilepsy patients, as well as planning surgical procedures,” he said. “In the future, LFP signals measured by implanted electrodes could detect an impending epilepsy seizure and stop it by injecting a suitable electrical current.”
The technology could also be used in conjunction with robotics to aid those paralyzed by spinal cord fracture.
“When a patient is paralyzed, nerve cells in the cerebral cortex continue to send out signals, but the signals do not reach the muscles,” Einevoll said. “By monitoring the right nerve cells and forwarding these signals to, for example, a robot arm, the patient may be able to steer by his or her thoughts alone.”
Good news, we say! Or, as they say in Norway, “gode nyheter!”
Image: Jello brain, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from lucylarou’s photostream.