Anatomically plausible networks of functionally inter-connected regions have been reliably demonstrated at rest, although the neurochemical basis of these ‘resting state networks’ is not well understood. In this study, we combined magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) and resting state fMRI and demonstrated an inverse relationship between levels of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA within the primary motor cortex (M1) and the strength of functional connectivity across the resting motor network. This relationship was both neurochemically and anatomically specific. We then went on to show that anodal transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), an intervention previously shown to decrease GABA levels within M1, increased resting motor network connectivity. We therefore suggest that network-level functional connectivity within the motor system is related to the degree of inhibition in M1, a major node within the motor network, a finding in line with converging evidence from both simulation and empirical studies.
Even when your body is at rest, your brain remains active. Subjects lying in brain scanners without any specific task to perform show coordinated and reproducible patterns of brain activity. Areas of the brain with similar functions, such as those involved in vision or in movement, tend to increase or decrease their activity in sync, and these coordinated patterns are referred to as resting state networks.
The functions of these networks are unclear—they may support introspection, memory recall or planning for the future, or they may help to strengthen newly acquired skills by enabling the brain to replay previous learning episodes. There is evidence that resting state networks are altered in disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, autism and schizophrenia, but little is known about how these changes arise or what they might mean.
Now, Stagg et al. have used a type of brain scan called magnetic resonance spectroscopy to gain insights into the mechanisms by which one particular network—the resting motor network—is generated. This network consists of areas involved in planning, monitoring and executing movements, and includes the primary motor cortex, which initiates movements by sending instructions to the spinal cord.
The levels of a chemical called GABA—a neurotransmitter molecule that tends to inhibit the activity of nerve cells—were measured in the primary motor cortex of young healthy volunteers as they lay idle in a scanner. GABA levels were negatively correlated with the amount of coordinated activity within the resting motor network. By contrast, no relation was seen between coordinated activity and the levels of the neurotransmitter glutamate, which tends to increase the activity of nerve cells. Furthermore, when a weak electric current was applied through the subjects’ scalp to their primary motor cortex—a technique previously shown to lower levels of GABA in the region—the resting motor network became stronger.
In addition to providing new information on how the rhythmic patterns of activity seen in the resting brain arise, the work of Stagg et al. contributes to the more general effort to understand the complex patterns of connections within the human brain.