Wub-wub-wub-wub. Brainwaves are electromagnetic proof that we are alive. Decades of research have shown that these pulses of electrical potential reflect events at the root of our impulses and thoughts. As such, they underlie one of humanity’s weightiest moral decisions: deciding whether or not a person is officially dead. If a person goes 30 minutes without producing brainwaves, even a functioning heartbeat can’t convince doctors they’re alive.
But as much as brainwaves loom in our understanding of the brain, not a single scientist has any idea where they come from.
At least one researcher, Michael X. Cohen, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition, and Behavior in the Netherlands, thinks it’s time to fix that. In an April op-ed in the journal Trends in Neurosciences, Cohen argued that the time has come for researchers to figure out what those brainwaves they’ve been recording for decades are really all about.
“This is maybe the most important question for neuroscience right now,” he said to Inverse, but he added that it will be a challenge to convince his colleagues that it matters at all.
Today, as Facebook races to read your brainwaves, roboticists use them to develop mind control systems, and cybersecurity experts race to protect yours from hackers, it’s clear that Cohen’s sense of urgency is justified.
What we do know about brainwaves is that when doctors stick silver chloride dots to a person’s scalp and hook the connected electrodes up to an electroencephalography (EEG) machine, the curves that appear on its screen represent the electrical activity inside our skulls. The German neuroscientist Hans Berger spotted the first type of brainwave — alpha waves — back in 1924.
Researchers soon discovered more of these strange oscillations. There’s the slow, powerful delta wave, which shows up when we’re in deep sleep. There’s the low spikes of the theta wave, whose functions remain largely mysterious. Faster and even stranger is the gamma wave, which some researchers suspect plays a role in consciousness.
These waves are at the root of our understanding of the shape and structure of human thought, as well as the methods doctors use to figure out how brains break down. It’s thought that alpha waves, for example, are a sign the brain is inhibiting certain mental systems to free up bandwidth for other tasks, like sleeping or imagining. But where does it come from in the first place?
So far, there’s been no satisfactory answer to this question, but Cohen is determined to find it.
As one of the world’s leading researchers on the brain’s electrical activity, he hooks people up to EEG machines to figure out how their brains behave when they see a bird, think through a complex decision, or feel sad. But Cohen is the first to admit that what’s lacking in his research is context. Not understanding how those patterns relate to the actual meat of the brain — neurons firing or not firing, getting excited, or shutting down — leaves a huge mystery right at the center of brainwave neuroscience, he says.
“Over time it started bothering me more and more,” Cohen told Inverse. “There’s so much complexity going on at smaller spatial scales, and we have literally no fucking clue how to get from this big spatial scale to this smaller spatial scale.”
Part of the reason why it’s so hard to understand neuroscience research in the context of the brain, Cohen explains, is because neuroscientists themselves work in discrete, isolated sub-fields based on how big a chunk of the brain they study. Researchers studying the brain at the smallest level peel open individual neurons and watch the proteins inside them fold. Microcircuit neuroscientists map out the connections between neurons. Cohen zooms out a little further, connecting electrical patterns and human thought, rarely concerning himself with single cells or small groups of neurons.
But as we begin to fully grasp how complex the brain really is, Cohen says, it’s increasingly imperative to find a way to bridge the research that happens at the macro and micro scales. Finally understanding brainwaves, he says, could be the key to doing so.
That’s because brainwaves pulse at every single level of the brain, from the tiniest neuron to the entire 3-pound organ. “If you’re recording from just one neuron, you’ll see oscillations,” Cohen says, using the scientific term for wobbling brainwaves.
“If you’re recording from a small ensemble of neurons, you’ll see them. And if you’re recording from tens of millions of neurons, you’ll see oscillations.”
For Cohen, brainwaves are the common thread that can unify neuroscience. But the problem is, most research deals only with the electrical activity produced from tens of millions of neurons at a time, which is the highest resolution a typical EEG machine can capture without needlessly cutting into an innocent study subject’s head. The problem is that this big, rough EEG research in humans isn’t very compatible with the intricate, neuron-scale research done in lab rats. Consequently, we have plenty of information about the brain’s parts but no understanding of how they work together as a whole.
“It’s the difference between ‘What do Americans like?’ and ‘What does any individual American like?’” Cohen said. “And that’s a huge difference — between what any individual does and what you can say as a generality about an entire culture.”
While we know that all that electrical activity is the result of charged chemicals sloshing around in our brains in rhythmic, patterned waves, that doesn’t tell us anything about the most important question: Why they’re generated in the first place.
“The problem with these answers is that they’re totally meaningless from a neuroscience perspective,” Cohen says. “These answers tell you about how it’s physically possible, how the universe is constructed such that we can make these measurements. But there’s a totally different question, which is, what do these measurements mean? What do they tell us about the kinds of computations that are taking place in the brain? And that’s a huge explanatory gap.”
There are a few ways to bridge that gap. Scientists like those at the Blue Brain Project in Switzerland are trying to do so by building a computerized brain simulation that’s detailed enough to include the whole organ, as well as individual neurons, which they hope can reveal a kind of cell activity that would cause different kinds of common EEG patterns to appear. The one huge challenge to this approach, however, is that there’s no computer that can simulate a brain’s computations in real time; just a millisecond of one neuron’s time in a simulation can take 10 seconds of real-world time for a computer to figure out. It’s certainly possible, but doing so would cost billions of dollars.
Cohen’s plan, which relies on real-world experiments, is much simpler.
Since you can’t cut open a human brain and start sticking electrodes in there to record activity (even in “human rights-challenged places,” Cohen says), he’s relying on rodents instead. But what makes his work different is that he’s hooking those rodents up to EEG machines, which researchers don’t usually do. “They say, why are you wasting your time recording EEG from rats? EEG is for when you don’t have access to the brain, so you record from outside,” he says.
But rodents have brainwaves, too, and their data can provide much-needed insight into how to bridge the neuron-brainwave divide. His experiments will create two huge data sets that researchers can cross-reference to figure out how neuron function and EEG behavior relate to one another. With the help of some deep-learning algorithms, they’ll then pore over that data to build a map of how individual sparks of neural activity add up to recognizable brainwaves. If Cohen’s experiments are very successful, his team will be able to look at a rodent’s EEG and predict — with what he hopes is more than 98 percent accuracy — exactly how the neural circuits are behaving in its brain.
“I think we’re not that far away from breakthroughs. Some of these kinds of questions are not so difficult to answer, it’s just that no one has really looked,” he said. But he admits that he’s worried that the segmentation of neuroscience research will get in the way of this whole-brain approach.
“So this is very terrifying for me and also very difficult, because I have very little experience in the techniques that i think are necessary,” he said.
Having to admit on his grant applications that his work would employ unfamiliar techniques he has never used made it difficult to get funding, but Cohen ultimately received a grant from the European Union. Now, with the aid of a lab fully staffed with experts in rodent brains, Cohen is ready to get to work.
Soon enough, we might finally get some answers to one of the oldest and strangest mysteries in neuroscience: where all those wub-wubs really come from and what they really mean.
If you’re interested in learning more about the mysteries of brain science, Inverse reporter Rafi Letzter has proposed a South by Southwest panel, “Peering into the Black Box of the Brain,” where he will discuss these with leading neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, and psychologists. You can vote for it on SXSW’s panelpicker website here.