In the absence of external stimuli the mammalian brain continues to display a rich variety of spontaneous activity. Such activity is often highly stereotypical, invariably rhythmic and can occur with periodicities ranging from a few milliseconds to several minutes. Recently there has been a particular resurgence of interest in fluctuations in brain activity occurring at <0.1 Hz, commonly referred to as very slow or infra-slow oscillations (ISOs). Whilst this is primarily due to the emergence of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as a technique which has revolutionised the study of human brain dynamics it is also a consequence of the application of full band electroencephalography (fbEEG). Despite these technical advances the precise mechanisms which lead to ISOs in the brain remain unclear. In a host of animal studies, one brain region that consistently shows oscillations at <0.1 Hz is the thalamus. Importantly, similar oscillations can also be observed in slices of isolated thalamic relay nuclei maintained in vitro. Here, we discuss the nature and mechanisms of these oscillations, paying particular attention to a potential role for astrocytes in their genesis. We also highlight the relationship between this activity and ongoing local network oscillations in the alpha (α) (~8-13 Hz) band, drawing clear parallels with observations made in vivo. Lastly, we consider the relevance of these thalamic ISOs to the pathological activity that occurs in certain types of epilepsy.
Keywords: acetylcholine, metabotropic glutamate receptor, EEG, gap junctions, alpha rhythm, epilepsy, adenosine, astrocytes, GIRK channels