Mysterious spiral signals in the human brain could be key to our cognition

An artist's illustration of the human mind containing a large spiral.
An artist's illustration of the human mind containing a large spiral. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Mysterious, spiral signals have been discovered in the human brain, and the scientists who found the swirls think they could help to organize complex brain activity.

The signals, which appeared as swirling spirals of brain waves across the outer layer of the brain, were discovered in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans of 100 young adults, and appeared both when they were resting and working on tasks.

The exact purpose of these vortices is unknown, but their discoverers think the spiral signals might be used to link different parts of the brain and help process information faster. These vortices may even be impaired by brain diseases such as dementia, and could serve as inspiration for advanced computers that emulate the complex processes of the human mind. The researchers published their findings June 15 in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

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"Much like vortices act in turbulence, the spirals engage in intricate interactions, playing a crucial role in organising the brain's complex activities," Pulin Gong, an associate professor of physics at the University of Sydney, said in a statement. "The intricate interactions among multiple co-existing spirals could allow neural computations to be conducted in a distributed and parallel manner, leading to remarkable computational efficiency."

Vortex in the cortex

The wrinkled, outermost layer of the brain — known as the cerebral cortex — manages many of the mind's most complex tasks, such as memory, attention, language, perception and even consciousness itself. Many neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease and cerebral palsy, affect the cortex.

Yet neuroscience has mainly ignored the cortex itself and instead traditionally focused on the connections and interactions between neurons (the brain's nerve cells) to determine how the wrinkly organ functions. To investigate the activity taking place across the cortex, the scientists took fMRI scans of 100 healthy adults between the ages of 22 and 35. The mysterious spirals, intricate brain wave patterns of various sizes that rotated around central points, were present in everyone.

The exact function of the spirals is a mystery, but after analyzing the turbulent patterns, the scientists think that the vortices may act as bridges of communication across the brain, connecting distinct regions into networks and occasionally even traveling across the cortex. By assigning the participants tasks while they were scanned, such as completing math problems or listening to a story, the researchers observed the spirals switch directions from clockwise to counterclockwise in different regions across the brain — a clue that the vortices might be coordinating brain activity via dynamic rotational changes.

"One key characteristic of these brain spirals is that they often emerge at the boundaries that separate different functional networks in the brain," first author Yiben Xu, a doctoral candidate in physics at the University of Sydney, said in the statement. "In our research we observed that these interacting brain spirals allow for flexible reconfiguration of brain activity during various tasks involving natural language processing and working memory, which they achieve by changing their rotational directions."

The researchers said their study should encourage a shift in neuroscientific research toward larger-scale phenomena in the brain. Eventually, brain processes at multiple scales could be pieced together to get a fuller picture of how the mind functions. 

Gong says that learning more about the complex workings of our brain could also have the potential "to advance powerful computing machines inspired by the intricate workings of the human brain."

"By unravelling the mysteries of brain activity and uncovering the mechanisms governing its coordination, we are moving closer to unlocking the full potential of understanding cognition and brain function," Gong said.

Ben Turner
Staff Writer

Ben Turner is a U.K. based staff writer at Live Science. He covers physics and astronomy, among other topics like tech and climate change. He graduated from University College London with a degree in particle physics before training as a journalist. When he's not writing, Ben enjoys reading literature, playing the guitar and embarrassing himself with chess.