Tuned into Neuroscience

There are a host of ways neuroscientists can study the brain. Some analyze its chemistry, others its structure. UNC researcher Flavio Frohlich examines its electrical system, what he calls the “language of the brain,” and investigates how miscommunication in these signals can play a role in psychiatric illnesses.

By Megan May

August 14th, 2019

All is quiet as the classical quartet, Vida Strings, waits to perform. Seated in a semi-circle, the group takes in a deep, collective breath before plunging into music, their rich sound reverberating off the wood floor and high ceiling of the music hall.

With eyes closed this may seem like a normal concert, but this performance is anything but typical — netting connecting hundreds of nodes covers the musicians’ heads and faces. As they play, the nodes gather data on their brains’ electrical activity patterns.

“The fascinating thing about the brain is it is actually an electrical system,” says Flavio Frohlich, director of the Carolina Center for Neurostimulation. “The way in which individual cells function is by talking with each other through very tiny, weak, electrical impulses.”

If people experience psychiatric symptoms, Frohlich says, there is a miscommunication between electrical signals in different areas of their brain. Frohlich works to understand where this signal falters and uses a targeted approach to restore and renormalize these lines of communication.

At the Carolina Center for Neurostimulation, this research is translated into clinical practice. The group uses electrodes on a patient’s scalp to safely and noninvasively pass small amounts of electricity to specific areas of the brain.

“Like a conductor of an orchestra, we provide some additional timing signals, some additional help, some input to further structure and improve these activity patterns,” Frohlich says.

To further develop treatments, Frohlich’s group must focus on decoding the brain’s electrical signals, and are using a recently discovered phenomenon as the starting point.

A mirror image

As Klara and Adrian chat over coffee, Adrian leans in and recounts his day. Klara does likewise. After he finishes, he leans back, crosses his legs, and takes a sip of his drink. A moment later, Klara follows suit.

The two are participating in a common human behavior called body mirroring. As a subconscious psychological communication aid, body mirroring occurs when one person imitates another’s posture, gestures, and speech patterns.

Frohlich’s work takes this notion a step further, looking at individual brain activity patterns during conversation.

“There are now first insights that there’s specific rhythmic and network activity patterns in one brain trying, if you will, to simulate the other brain,” he says. Like body mirroring, these rhythmic electrical signals also mimic each other.

How do you study this? Frohlich looked for an experiment structured and simple enough to reproduce multiple times, yet also reflective of real-world interactions.

“I wanted a way to study the neuroscience of how brains interact beyond the standard lab context,” he says. “I was looking for the sweet spot between what they call naturalistic, real world, and still well-controlled.”

While thinking this through, Frohlich, who is also an amateur cellist, came upon a solution that combined his passion for both music and science. Even at the most basic level, musicians must listen and adjust their behavior in accordance to their peers — what Frohlich sees as conversation.

His research group designed an experiment observing brain activity patterns of a string quartet to see if and when these brain patterns synch between the various musicians. Their early findings are expected, yet striking.

When the quartet plays together, the amount by which different brains are coordinating is about twice as high as when they are resting and not playing music. This pushes past traditional research exploring the workings of an individual brain, to understanding a connected network of brains.

“I think that’s really a new frontier in neuroscience, to go from a focus on an individual to a focus on a network of people, a network of brains,” Frohlich says, “And I think that’s the future of neuroscience.”

Flavio Frohlich is the director of the Carolina Center for Neurostimulation, associate professor of psychiatry, cell biology, and physiology, adjunct professor of neurology, and adjunct professor of biomedical engineering.

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