Sponsored by the Aging Brain Initiative (ABI), an MIT-wide collaboration to understand how aging puts our brains at risk for neurodegeneration, “Brain Rhythms in Health and Disease” featured deep discussions of some of the most influential research – and some yet to be published – on how neural oscillations coordinate functions such as computation, cognition, learning and memory, perception, and attention. Several speakers shared evidence of the consequences of disrupted rhythms in disease and strategies for restoring them back to a healthy cadence. Speakers hailed from four different countries and a range of seniority and subdiscipline.
“What compels us here today is the excitement we feel about understanding the role of neuronal oscillations in brain dynamics, cognition, behavior, and disorders,” said ABI co-founder and Picower Institute Director Li-Huei Tsai in welcoming the 300 people who packed Building 46’s Singleton Auditorium and two overflow areas in the atrium outside.
As just one case in point, when Tsai collaborator former MIT postdoc Annabelle Singer, now an assistant professor at Georgia Tech, took the podium, she described the team’s latest findings about how non-invasively entraining gamma rhythms in the brain, for instance by flickering light at 40 Hertz, produces profound benefits in Alzheimer’s disease, where those rhythms are abnormal in patients. Mouse models experience a striking reduction in the protein plaques and tangles associated with the disease after that stimulation.
Brain rhythms, spanning 0.1 to 200 Hertz, are indeed “a ubiquitous phenomenon” across the cortex and in many other areas of the brain, noted keynote speaker Wolf Singer, senior research group leader at the Ernst Strüngmann Institute (ESI) in Frankfurt, Germany. Because they are easy to detect and represent the cohesive coordination of ensembles of neurons, they are very useful for exploring the brain.
“We measure coherence in order to identify functional networks because we believe that coherence is somehow telling us something about communication between these networks,’ he said. “Measures of synchrony are used as a diagnostic tool. In certain psychiatric diseases – in schizophrenia, and autism spectrum disorders, and Alzheimer’s, I learned this afternoon – there is something wrong with the temporal coordination of distributed activity.”