Brain, the benefits of rest

When we are at rest, that is, in sleep or in the absence of particular tasks, our brain produces spontaneous activity that resembles that recorded during active behavior, but whose role is still debated.

A possible description of this activity comes from a theoretical study published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences by Giovanni Pezzulo of the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies of the National Research Council (Cnr-Istc) of Rome, by Marco Zorzi of the Department of General Psychology of the University of Padua and Irccs San Camillo Hospital of Venice, and of Maurizio Corbetta of the Department of Neuroscience of the University of Padua, Padua Neuroscience Center (PNC) and Veneto Institute of Molecular Medicine (VIMM).

In the article The secret life of predictive brains: what’s spontaneous activity for the researchers hypothesize, summarizing the results of many behavioral, neurophysiological, and neuroimaging experiments, that the brain behaves in a similar way to a particular class of computational algorithms. Spontaneous brain activity could reflect the functioning of a generative model, explain Giovanni Pezzulo and Marco Zorzi.

Generative models are widely used in Artificial Intelligence for their ability to spontaneously generate, in an allegorical sense ‘imagine’, stimuli such as images or videos similar to those they have learned. Similarly, the ‘generative model’ of the brain is useful for solving particular tasks such as recognizing a face or planning an action while awake, but remains active even when it is at rest. In this state, therefore in the absence of a precise task to be performed and strong external stimuli, spontaneous activity could serve to optimize the learning abilities and future performance of the brain.

When we dream, spontaneous activity generates impressions, emotions, behaviors, and even moral judgments that are indistinguishable from those we perform while awake, concludes Maurizio Corbetta. The brain is the organ of the body that consumes the most energy by far, about 20-25% of the total metabolic budget versus only 2% of the body mass, and this high requirement largely depends on spontaneous activity. In analogy with the universe, where the majority of the mass is invisible, spontaneous brain activity has been called the ‘dark matter’ of the brain but its functions remain mysterious. Our hypothesis provides a new key to understanding these functions more fully and we plan to test it further through new experiments and computational models.

This research line is funded by ThinkAhead (European Research Council), Human Brain Project (H2020, FET Flagship), Departments of Excellence of MIUR to the Departments of General Psychology and Neuroscience, CARIPARO Foundation, BIAL Foundation, FLAG-ERA, Horizon 2020 European School of Network Neuroscience.

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