For neurons to work as a team, it helps to have a beat

When it comes to conducting complex tasks, it turns out that the brain needs rhythm, according to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.

Specifically, cortical rhythms, or oscillations, can effectively rally groups of neurons in widely dispersed regions of the brain to engage in coordinated activity, much like a conductor will summon up various sections of an orchestra in a symphony.

Even the simple act of catching a ball necessitates an impressive coordination of multiple groups of neurons to perceive the object, judge its speed and trajectory, decide when it's time to catch it and then direct the muscles in the body to grasp it before it whizzes by or drops to the ground.

Until now, neuroscientists had not fully understood how these neuron groups in widely dispersed regions of the brain first get linked together so they can work in concert for such complex tasks.

The UC Berkeley findings are to be published the week of 20 September in the online early edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"One of the key problems in neuroscience right now is how you go from billions of diverse and independent neurons, on the one hand, to a unified brain able to act and survive in a complex world, on the other," said principal investigator Jose Carmena, UC Berkeley assistant professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, the Program in Cognitive Science, and the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. "Evidence from this study supports the idea that neuronal oscillations are a critical mechanism for organizing the activity of individual neurons into larger functional groups."