The Singing Brain

Scientists from Cardiff University, UK, have discovered that studying the unique way a person’s brain “sings” may provide insight into complex conditions such as schizophrenia and epilepsy. With better understanding it will be possible to develop better treatments and save many people from life-long suffering.
Gamma oscillations (Credit: University of Aberdeen)
Gamma oscillations
(Credit: University of Aberdeen)

GABA is a neurotransmitter chemical usually working as an inhibitor of neuron activity in the adult human brain. It plays an important role in regulating neuronal excitability throughout the nervous system and is essential to normal functions of the brain. Low levels of GABA in the body have been linked to epilepsy and an increased risk of seizures. Today, a number of drugs used to treat epilepsy stimulate production of GABA.

A research team from the Cardiff Brain Research Imaging Centre (CUBRIC) put subjects into an MRI scanner and recorded their brain activity using MRI and MEG technologies while showing them different visual patterns. They discovered that a person’s brain produces a unique electrical oscillation at a particular frequency when a person looks at specific visual patterns. This oscillation frequency is mainly determined by the concentration of the neurotransmitter GABA in the visual cortex of the person’s brain. The more GABA was found to be present, the higher the frequency of the oscillations.

Leading the research was Professor Krish Singh from the Cardiff School of Psychology, who said – “Using sophisticated MEG and MRI brain imaging equipment, we’ve found that when a person looks at a visual pattern their brain produces an electrical signal, known as a gamma oscillation, at a set frequency.

A scan of a volunteer’s brain, including a superimposed MEG gamma oscillation activation map (Credit: Cardiff University)
A scan of a volunteer’s brain,
including a superimposed MEG
gamma oscillation activation map
(Credit: Cardiff University)

“In effect, each person’s brain ‘sings’ at a different note in the range 40-70 Hz. This is similar to the notes in the lowest octaves of a standard piano keyboard or the lower notes on a bass guitar. Importantly, we also found that this frequency appears to be controlled by how much of an essential neurotransmitter, GABA, is present in a person’s visual cortex.”

The team believes that these findings will have important implications in future clinical studies. They believe that understanding the “singing” pattern of the brain will promote the understanding of conditions such as epilepsy and schizophrenia. The scientists are currently looking into sharing their work with medical colleges and add that studying the gamma oscillation frequency will improve our ability to understand how different neurotransmitters work and how their function is compromised in diseases such as epilepsy and schizophrenia.

Prof. Krish Singh (Credit: Cardiff University)
Prof. Krish Singh
(Credit: Cardiff University)

“We also believe that our findings could have important implications for the development, production and effectiveness of drugs to treat these and other neurological conditions,” said Professor Singh.

TFOT has recently covered several stories on the different uses of MRI scans. One such story described a new technique for producing higher quality MRI images developed by group of engineers from the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Another story describes the use of a new contrast agent capable of finding cancer cells with great precision discovered by scientists at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

For more information on the “singing” of brains, please visit the Cardiff University news page.

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