Press release

The brain at rest? Optimizes its future performance

25/06/2021

Italian researchers hypothesize that the resting brain, in the absence of particular tasks to perform, functions as a class of computational algorithms called 'generative models' and that the spontaneous activity it generates is necessary to optimize learning and the preparation to perform future tasks. The study, which involves Cnr, University of Padua, Irccs Ospedale San Camillo Venice, Padua Neuroscience Center and Veneto Institute of Molecular Medicine, is published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

When we are at rest, that is, during 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 summarize the results of many behavioral, neurophysiological and neuroimaging experiments and hypothesize that the brain behaves in a similar way to a particular class of computational algorithms. "The spontaneous activity of the brain 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 it remains active even when at rest. In this state, in the absence of strong external stimuli and of a specific task to be performed, 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 against only 2% of body mass, and this high requirement largely depends on spontaneous activity. In analogy with the universe, in which the majority of the mass is invisible, spontaneous brain activity has been defined as the 'dark matter' of the brain but its functions remain mysterious. Our hypothesis provides a new perspective to understand these functions. We intend to test this theory 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.

Rome, 25 June 2021

In brief

Who: Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies of the National Research Council (Cnr-Istc) of Rome; Department of General Psychology of the University of Padua; Irccs San Camillo Hospital Venice; Department of Neuroscience of the University of Padua; Padova Neuroscience Center (PNC) and Veneto Institute of Molecular Medicine (VIMM)

What: Theoretical study on the role of spontaneous brain activity published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences: The secret life of predictive brains: what’s spontaneous activity for? Link to the paper: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364661321001285

For information (contact details for professional use, not to be published):
Giovanni Pezzulo, Cnr-Istc, giovanni.pezzulo@istc.cnr.it;
Marco Zorzi, Università di Padova, Irccs Ospedale San Camillo, marco.zorzi@unipd.it;
Maurizio Corbetta, Università di Padova, Veneto Institute of Molecular Medicine, maurizio.corbetta@unipd.it

Ufficio stampa:
Cecilia Migali
Cnr Press Office
cecilia.migali@cnr.it

Capo ufficio stampa:
Marco Ferrazzoli
marco.ferrazzoli@cnr.it
ufficiostampa@cnr.it
06 4993 3383