To provide an effective substrate for cognitive processes, functional brain networks should be able to reorganize and coordinate on a sub-second temporal scale. We used magnetoencephalography recordings of spontaneous activity to characterize whole-brain functional connectivity dynamics at high temporal resolution. Using a novel approach that identifies the points in time at which unique patterns of activity recur, we reveal transient (100–200 ms) brain states with spatial topographies similar to those of well-known resting state networks. By assessing temporal changes in the occurrence of these states, we demonstrate that within-network functional connectivity is underpinned by coordinated neuronal dynamics that fluctuate much more rapidly than has previously been shown. We further evaluate cross-network interactions, and show that anticorrelation between the default mode network and parietal regions of the dorsal attention network is consistent with an inability of the system to transition directly between two transient brain states.
When subjects lie motionless inside scanners without any particular task to perform, their brains show stereotyped patterns of activity across regions known as resting state networks. Each network consists of areas with a common function, such as the ‘motor’ network or the ‘visual’ network. The role of resting state networks is unclear, but these spontaneous activity patterns are altered in disorders including autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
One puzzling feature of resting state networks is that they seem to last for relatively long times. However, the majority of studies into resting state networks have used fMRI brain scans, in which changes in the level of oxygen in the blood are used as a proxy for the activity of a given brain region. Since changes in blood oxygen occur relatively slowly, the ability of fMRI to detect rapid changes in activity is limited: it is thus possible that the long-lived nature of resting state networks is an artefact of the use of fMRI.
Now, Baker et al. have used a different type of brain scan known as an MEG scan to show that the activity of resting state networks is shorter lived than previously thought. MEG scanners measure changes in the magnetic fields generated by electrical currents in the brain, which means that they can detect alterations in brain activity much more rapidly than fMRI.
MEG recordings from the brains of nine healthy subjects revealed that individual resting state networks were typically stable for only 100 ms to 200 ms. Moreover, transitions between different networks did not occur randomly; instead, certain networks were much more likely to become active after others. The work of Baker et al. suggests that the resting brain is constantly changing between different patterns of activity, which enables it to respond quickly to any given situation.