By Emilie Reas, PLOS Neuroscience Community Editor
Despite their many advantages, traditional tools to study neurocognitive function in humans, such as EEG or fMRI, carry several disadvantages compared to those usable on animals. Perhaps the most significant limitation is the challenge of imaging neural activity of live human brains during mental functions, which inherently requires the application of invasive neuroimaging techniques. Recently, the cognitive neuroscientist’s tool-belt has rapidly expanded, with the growing prevalence and usability of powerful imaging methods such as intracranial EEG – or electrocorticography (ECOG) – and electrical brain stimulation, that permit direct recording or stimulation of neuronal activity in live, conscious humans.
The SfN symposium Studying Human Cognition with Intracranial EEG and Electrical Brain Stimulation (previously previewed here, including an interview with speaker Josef Parvizi) explored current advances in these evolving methods along with their applications to the human cognitive experience.
UC Berkeley’s Bob Knight opened the symposium by highlighting the unique perks of ECOG over more traditional imaging techniques — points which were later recapitulated by other speakers — including its remarkably high spatial and temporal resolution and exceptional signal to noise ratio. ECOG is in fact so precise that it can reliably measure signal down to the single trial level – a feat neither EEG nor fMRI can boast. In just his brief introduction, Knight shared some impressive clinical and cognitive applications of these electrophysiology techniques. For instance, intracranial EEG signal from the auditory cortex was effective (with 99% accuracy!) at reconstructing words, holding clear implications for patients with speech impairments. My personal favorite highlight of the session, however, was the reconstruction of Pink Floyd’s “Another brick in the wall” from intracranial auditory cortex recordings.
First up, Josef Parvizi from Stanford University presented his lab’s multimodal approach to neurocognitive assessment, incorporating fMRI, ECOG and electrical brain stimulation. Parvizi shared a series of cases illustrating the powerful – and entertaining — applications of brain stimulation. In response to stimulation of the “salience network”, which had been previously mapped using fMRI, one patient responded that he felt like he was “riding in a storm”, but “felt nothing” after sham stimulation. A second patient reported the sense that “something bad is going to happen,” confirming in both patients emotionally driven reactions to “salience network” stimulation. In a final, particularly compelling, demonstration, Parvizi showed the effects of fusiform face area stimulation: “You just turned into somebody else,” the subject reported. “That was a trip!”
Next, Rafael Malach of the Weizmann Institute discussed his lab’s use of intracranial EEG to measure spontaneous neural activity at rest. FMRI is most commonly used to study resting-state activity; however, the BOLD signal may be contaminated by non-neural signal, and — due to its poor temporal resolution — is effectively blind to rapid events. Using ECOG, which overcomes both of these hurdles, Malach demonstrated how high frequency gamma activity accurately reflects neuronal firing rate and can assess functional connectivity. Surprisingly, spontaneous activity between recording sites on opposite hemispheres is more highly correlated than between adjacent recording sites. So ECOG may be a powerful tool for measuring spontaneous activity, but this is only valuable if we can identify the signal’s associated mental processes. Using the comical and celebrated example of the entorhinal cortex “Simpsons neuron”, which selectively fired in response to images of the Simpsons or immediately before spontaneous recall of the cartoon, Malach suggested that spontaneous activity exceeding an awareness threshold might indeed represent conscious thoughts.
Jean-Philippe Lachaux, from the Lyon Research Council, took a slightly different angle on the applications of ECOG, highlighting its unique suitability for evaluating naturalistic behavior. Because of its robustness against artifacts problematic in EEG or fMRI — like motion, blinking or signal distortion — ECOG can be more flexibly used in a variety of environments. These applications can be enhanced by integrating it with other tools such as eye-tracking, to more accurately associate natural behavior with neural activity in real time. Furthermore, Lachaux illustrated the power of ECOG at unraveling the temporal dynamics of functional interactions. Lachaux presented data questioning the common assumption that inter-region communication is typically a one-way street, proposing instead that such interactions may be more akin to reciprocal “shared conversations”.
Sabine Kastner of Princeton University wrapped up the session with her lab’s comparative studies of attention in humans and monkeys. Combining human intracranial EEG with single-unit and LFP measures in monkeys during attention (Flanker task), she reported similar attention modulation in human and monkey intraparietal sulcus. Intriguingly, while attention modulated high gamma in both species, it also increased low frequency oscillations in humans. At the heart of cognitive neuroscience is the question of how neural activity translates to thoughts and behavior. To directly address this issue, Kastner is using electrophysiology to identify the optimal neural code for attention. In both humans and monkeys, she finds that spike phase better predicts behavior than spike rate, inching us one step closer to resolving the brain-cognition relationship.
Judging by the responses to my live-tweeting of this symposium, I’ll conjecture that the Neuro community is as intrigued and excited as yours-truly about the potential applications of ECOG and brain stimulation. In the words of @WiringTheBrain,
The views expressed in this post belong to the author and are not necessarily those of PLOS.
Emilie Reas received her PhD in Neuroscience from UC San Diego, where she used fMRI to study memory. As a postdoc at UCSD, she currently studies how the brain changes with aging and disease. In addition to her tweets for @PLOSNeuro she is @etreas.