Cortical travelling waves: mechanisms and computational principles

Nat Rev Neurosci. 2018 May;19(5):255-268. doi: 10.1038/nrn.2018.20. Epub 2018 Mar 22.


Multichannel recording technologies have revealed travelling waves of neural activity in multiple sensory, motor and cognitive systems. These waves can be spontaneously generated by recurrent circuits or evoked by external stimuli. They travel along brain networks at multiple scales, transiently modulating spiking and excitability as they pass. Here, we review recent experimental findings that have found evidence for travelling waves at single-area (mesoscopic) and whole-brain (macroscopic) scales. We place these findings in the context of the current theoretical understanding of wave generation and propagation in recurrent networks. During the large low-frequency rhythms of sleep or the relatively desynchronized state of the awake cortex, travelling waves may serve a variety of functions, from long-term memory consolidation to processing of dynamic visual stimuli. We explore new avenues for experimental and computational understanding of the role of spatiotemporal activity patterns in the cortex.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain Waves / physiology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Computer Simulation*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*