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Gamma Waves: The Brain's Clock, Or Neural Noise?

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Jul 5, 2011 7:00 AMNov 5, 2019 12:15 AM


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Gamma waves are very hot at the moment.

Gamma band activity is a term for electrical oscillations recorded from the brain that have a frequency of over 25 Hz. In most brains, a peak frequency of about 40 Hz is seen. This makes gamma waves the fastest brain waves.

If you believe some recent claims, gamma waves are the answer to all the mysteries of life and the universe. They're said to underlie the symptoms of schizophrenia and autism, and they've been invoked to answer deep questions such as the binding problem and maybe conciousness itself. You can even buy a Nintendo game that promises to boost them.

A new paper from Burns et al casts doubt on all of these grand claims. Gamma-based theories of brain function all assume that gamma waves act a bit like a clock, with a consistent rhythm of about 40 Hz. Activity of about 40 Hz is indeed observed in brain recordings but is that just because the brain is randomly generating all kinds of signals, and only the 40 Hz ones "get through"?

To put it another way, imagine that you got a letter in the mail at 9 am every morning. That could be because someone is sending you one letter each day like clockwork. But it could also be that loads of people are sending you letters at random times, and your mailman only has room in his sack to deliver one each morning.

Here's the key data, recorded using electrodes implanted into the brains of two male macaque monkeys:

This shows that the monkey data closely resemble what you'd expect if gamma activity were filtered noise, and are not what you'd see if it were a more meaningful "clock". The "triangle" on the graph shows the number of bursts of a given frequency and duration.

The data also show that the phase of the gamma activity isn't consistent, which it would be if it were clocklike. In fact, the phases change entirely randomly.

So if gamma is just "filtered noise", what's the "filter"? Why 40 Hz, not 80 or 4000? Probably because this is just the maximum frequency at which neurons can fire. It takes a certain finite amount of time for cells to communicate with each other: a silicon chip can get a clock speed of many billions of hertz, but a cell just physically can't.

There's a catch, though. These monkeys were asleep, anaesthetized with the powerful opiate sufentanil. This is a good choice of drug: unlike most other sedatives and anaesthetics, you wouldn't expect an opiate to directly affect gamma oscillations. But still. If you believe that coherent gamma waves are the key to high-level concious experience, as many do, you might not expect to see much of that in the primary visual cortex in asleep animals.

However, this is clearly a very important issue, and it's not the first gamma-skeptic paper. In 2008, Yuval-Greenberg et al reported that many attempts to measure gamma activity using EEG were contaminated by electrical activity from scalp muscles. Rather than coming from the brain, the "gamma" activity reflected nothing more than tiny eye movements. The implications are still being debated.

This paper attacks the gamma hypothesis from a completely different angle, saying that even the "real" gamma in the brain, may be nothing more interesting than filtered noise.

Burns SP, Xing D, & Shapley RM (2011). Is gamma-band activity in the local field potential of v1 cortex a "clock" or filtered noise? The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 31 (26), 9658-64 PMID: 21715631

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