The working mechanism of brain regions, primarily responsible for specific tasks, have been discovered by Stanford researchers, along with the intricacies of how the billions of neurons interact or work alone.
The various regions of the brain often work independently, relying on the neurons inside that region to do their work. At other times, however, two regions must cooperate to accomplish the task at hand.
The riddle is this: what mechanism allows two brain regions to communicate when they need to cooperate yet avoid interfering with one another when they must work alone?
In a paper published today in Nature Neuroscience
, a team led by Stanford electrical engineering professor Krishna Shenoy reveals a previously unknown process that helps two brain regions cooperate when joint action is required to perform a task.
"This is among the first mechanisms reported in the literature for letting brain areas process information continuously but only communicate what they need to," said Matthew T. Kaufman, who was a postdoctoral scholar in the Shenoy lab when he co-authored the paper.
Kaufman initially designed his experiments to study how preparation helps the brain make fast and accurate movements - something that is central to the Shenoy lab's efforts to build prosthetic devices controlled by the brain.
But the Stanford researchers used a new approach to examine their data that yielded some findings that were broader than arm movements.
The Shenoy lab has been a pioneer in analyzing how large numbers of neurons function as a unit. As they applied these new techniques to study arm movements, the researchers discovered a way that different regions of the brain keep results localized or broadcast signals to recruit other regions as needed.
"Our neurons are always firing, and they're always connected," explained Kaufman, who is now pursuing brain research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. "So it's important to control what signals are communicated from one area to the next."
The scientists derived their findings by studying monkeys that had been trained to make precise arm movements. The monkeys were taught to pause briefly before making the reach, thus letting their brain prepare for a moment before moving.
Remember, the goal was to help build brain-controlled prostheses. Because the neurons in the brain always send out signals, engineers must be able to differentiate the command to act from the signals that accompany preparation.