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Biology, chemistry, Learning

Cycles in your brain

As I relearn how to move my wrist and use my thumb and fingers yet again I notice how much attention I have to pay to simple tasks. Holding a fork, not even using a fork, or opening up a mint package takes a lot of mental processing to make my hand do things that I did without thinking before the injury and the surgeries. In this case, I have to retrain all the muscles but it made me wonder if we do turn different parts of our brain on or off depending on what we’re attempting to do.

A group of researchers recently considered this. While it has been evident for a while that our brains go through significant periods of activity and inactivity when we’re asleep, these researchers looked at whether we had similar cycles when we are awake, and we do, only on a much smaller scale. Small sections of neurons, the cell type that sends and receives messages in the brain, go through mini cycles, and they go through it with neurons like themselves.

This doesn’t mean that our visual neurons turn on and off together, that is way too large scale. What it means is that the neurons associated with looking in the top right corner will cycle together. And if you know that you are likely to see something in a particular area, that section of neurons is more likely to be active.

Makes me think about activities like driving, or cycling. If you aren’t expecting any issues, say late at night or on a quiet road, your neurons might be more likely to be going through a rest phase, which means you are more likely to miss something. Perhaps that is why bad things can seem to happen when you are least expecting it.

If I go back to my wrist I think it is likely that the sections of neurons required to use my wrist are more likely to be activated when I’m trying to do something. And, I bet that doing the same task with my other hand does not require the same activation level because I don’t have to pay attention.

T. A. Engel, N. A. Steinmetz, M. A. Gieselmann, A. Thiele, T. Moore, K. Boahen. Selective modulation of cortical state during spatial attention. Science, 2016; 354 (6316): 1140 DOI: 10.1126/science.aag1420


About Peyto

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities. Peyto is a reference to Bill Peyto who was an outfitter, trapper, and eventually a park warden in Banff National Park. Peyto Lake and Peyto Glacier are both named after him. He is also a distant relative of mine.


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