Variability or noise is an unmistakable feature of neural signals; however such fluctuations have been regarded as not carrying meaningful information or as detrimental for neural processes. Recent empirical and computational work has shown that neural systems with a greater capacity for information processing are able to explore a more varied dynamic repertoire, and the hallmark of this is increased irregularity or variability in the neural signal. How this variability in neural dynamics affects behavior remains unclear. Here, we investigated the role of variability of magnetoencephalography signals in supporting healthy cognitive functioning, measured by performance on an attention task, in healthy adults and in patients with traumatic brain injury. As an index of variability, we calculated multiscale entropy, which quantifies the temporal predictability of a time series across progressively more coarse time scales. We found lower variability in traumatic brain injury patients compared to controls, arguing against the idea that greater variability reflects dysfunctional neural processing. Furthermore, higher brain signal variability indicated improved behavioral performance for all participants. This relationship was statistically stronger for people with brain injury, demonstrating that those with higher brain signal variability were also those who had recovered the most cognitive ability. Rather than impede neural processing, cortical signal variability within an optimal range enables the exploration of diverse functional configurations, and may therefore play a vital role in healthy brain function.
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