In science, it's often the most 'boring', easily overlooked factors that determine whether an experiment succeeds or fails.
A new paper reveals strong effects of body posture on brain electrical activity: Subject position affects EEG magnitudes. Just lying face-up as opposed to face-down can powerfully affect the signal measured using electroencephalography (EEG), according to Justin Rice and colleagues of New York.
Here's why: EEG uses electrodes, placed on the scalp, to measure the electrical potentials produced by brain firing.
The signal recorded depends, however, not just on the brain activity but also on the quality of the electrical conduction between the brain and the scalp: the signals have to travel through the fluids surrounding the brain, then the skull, and finally the skin, before they're detected.
EEG users sometimes think of brain-scalp conductivity as a fixed factor, that they can't control and don't have to worry about. However, Rice et al point out that the position of the brain shifts within the skull depending upon your posture.
This is because there's a bit of extra room in there, leaving space for the brain to "bounce around" a little within its fluid cavity. If you're lying on your back, the brain will lie closer to the back of the skull; if you're on your front, it'll be further forward, and so on. So the fluid layer between brain and skull will be corresponding thinner, or thicker.
In a healthy brain the change is only about 1 mm, but the fluid layer's only 3 mm at most, so that's a big change.
Others have recognized this problem before, but Rice et al's data are the clearest evidence yet that posture is a major factor. They showed that subjects lying on their back (supine) showed significantly stronger activity over the back of the brain - which makes sense, as it brings the brain closer to the electrodes. Lying face down (prone) made activity weaker and sitting was in between.
Interestingly - and worryingly - the effect was stronger depending upon the kind of activity being measured. For most kinds of brain activity it was about 40% higher but for gamma waves - the hottest thing in EEG right now - it was almost 80%.
So gamma band activity is especially sensitive to posture, and that raises the worrying possibility that even slight differences in head position between individuals could account for 'differences' in gamma power recorded, for example in studies comparing neurological patients and healthy controls; if the controls are sitting up straight while the patients are slouching back... the patients would seem to have more gamma.
Rice JK, Rorden C, Little JS, and Parra LC (2012). Subject position affects EEG magnitudes. NeuroImage PMID: 23006805