Scale-free brain activity: past, present, and future

Trends Cogn Sci. 2014 Sep;18(9):480-7. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2014.04.003. Epub 2014 Apr 28.


Brain activity observed at many spatiotemporal scales exhibits a 1/f-like power spectrum, including neuronal membrane potentials, neural field potentials, noninvasive electroencephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) signals. A 1/f-like power spectrum is indicative of arrhythmic brain activity that does not contain a predominant temporal scale (hence, 'scale-free'). This characteristic of scale-free brain activity distinguishes it from brain oscillations. Although scale-free brain activity and brain oscillations coexist, our understanding of the former remains limited. Recent research has shed light on the spatiotemporal organization, functional significance, and potential generative mechanisms of scale-free brain activity, as well as its developmental and clinical relevance. A deeper understanding of this prevalent brain signal should provide new insights into, and analytical tools for, cognitive neuroscience.

Keywords: arrhythmic; brain dynamics; brain oscillations; neural field potentials; power-law distribution; scale invariance; scale-free brain activity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping* / methods
  • Brain Mapping* / trends
  • Brain Waves / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Magnetoencephalography
  • Models, Neurological