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Neuroscientists listened in on people’s brains for a week. They found order and chaos.

Published in Brain/Neurology.

The study shows that our brains exist between chaos and stability—a finding that could be used to help tweak them either way.

By Jessica Hamzelou
February 7, 2023

Our brains exist in a state somewhere between stability and chaos as they help us make sense of the world, according to recordings of brain activity taken from volunteers over the course of a week. As we go from reading a book to chatting with a friend, for example, our brains shift from one semi-stable state to another—but only after chaotically zipping through multiple other states in a pattern that looks completely random.

Understanding how our brains restore some degree of stability after chaos could help us work out how to treat disorders at either end of this spectrum. Too much chaos is probably what happens when a person has a seizure, whereas too much stability might leave a person comatose, say the neuroscientists behind the work.

A better understanding of what’s going on could one day allow us to use brain stimulation to tip the brain into a sweet spot between the extremes.

A week in the brain

Brain imaging techniques have revealed a lot about how the brain works—but there’s only so much you can learn by getting a person to lie still in a brain scanner for half an hour. Avniel Ghuman and Maxwell Wang at the University of Pittsburgh wanted to know what happens in the longer term. After all, the symptoms of many neurological disorders can develop over hours or days, says Wang. To get a better idea of what might be going on, the pair devised an experiment that would let them watch brain activity for around a week.

Ghuman, Wang, and their colleagues turned to people who were undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy. Some people with severe or otherwise untreatable epilepsy opt to have the small parts of their brain that trigger their seizures surgically removed. Before any operation, they may have electrodes implanted in their brains for a week or so. During that time, these electrodes monitor brain activity to help surgeons pinpoint where their seizures start and identify exactly which bit of brain should be removed.

The researchers recruited 20 such individuals to volunteer in their study. Each person had 10 to 15 electrodes implanted for somewhere between three and 12 days.