Neuronal Avalanches in the Resting MEG of the Human Brain Academic Article uri icon


  • What constitutes normal cortical dynamics in healthy human subjects is a major question in systems neuroscience. Numerous in vitro and in vivo animal studies have shown that ongoing or resting cortical dynamics are characterized by cascades of activity across many spatial scales, termed neuronal avalanches. In experiment and theory, avalanche dynamics are identified by two measures: (1) a power law in the size distribution of activity cascades with an exponent of −3/2 and (2) a branching parameter of the critical value of 1, reflecting balanced propagation of activity at the border of premature termination and potential blowup. Here we analyzed resting-state brain activity recorded using noninvasive magnetoencephalography (MEG) from 124 healthy human subjects and two different MEG facilities using different sensor technologies. We identified large deflections at single MEG sensors and combined them into spatiotemporal cascades on the sensor array using multiple timescales. Cascade size distributions obeyed power laws. For the timescale at which the branching parameter was close to 1, the power law exponent was −3/2. This relationship was robust to scaling and coarse graining of the sensor array. It was absent in phase-shuffled controls with the same power spectrum or empty scanner data. Our results demonstrate that normal cortical activity in healthy human subjects at rest organizes as neuronal avalanches and is well described by a critical branching process. Theory and experiment have shown that such critical, scale-free dynamics optimize information processing. Therefore, our findings imply that the human brain attains an optimal dynamical regime for information processing.

publication date

  • January 1, 2013