Video: Scientists Captured a Single Thought Traveling Across a Human Brain From Start to Finish

The prefrontal cortex is the "glue of cognition," according to authors of a new study. NASA

Neuroscientists have tracked the path of a human thought through the brain from beginning to end. The new research reveals the abilities of the prefrontal cortex in unprecedented detail.

Scientists conducted an innovative study by observing patients who were prepared to undergo surgery for epilepsy. To monitor the electrical activity of the brain's neurons, the researchers pursued a technique called electrocorticography, in which hundreds of small electrodes are placed against the cortex. The approach collects even more detail than the more commonly known electroencephalogram, or EEG.

This may seem like a bit much to ask of typical study volunteers. Epilepsy patients undergoing surgery, however, are outfitted for electrocorticography as a precaution anyway, which allowed scientists to piggyback onto the setup. The research team, from various institutions across California as well as the Department of Neurology at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School, asked the patients to complete a variety of simple tasks while connected to the hardware. A paper describing the research was published in the scientific journal Nature Human Behavior.

Recording a thought’s fleeting trip through the #brain:

Watch video clip 🎥:: @ucberkeleyneuro @ucsf @NatureHumBehav @NSF @NIMHgov @NINDSnews #neuroscience #epilepsy

— UC Berkeley (@UCBerkeley) January 17, 2018

The patients completed various simple tasks, like repeating a word, or slightly more complex ones, like giving the word's antonym. As they did so, the researchers used electrocorticography to follow the electrical activity in their neurons as it moved from one region of the brain to another. All roads led to the prefrontal cortex.

Lead author Avgusta Shestyuk, a senior researcher at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, at the University of California, Berkeley, said that while this study isn't the first time researchers have tracked brain activity from stimulus to response, this focus on a "special type" of brain activity—the sustained pathway all the way to the cortex—is the first step to actually understanding what makes people behave the way they do.

"This sustained activity is even present when we fail to generate a response, but when we are still deliberating and thinking about it," Shestyuk told Newsweek via email. "What is also unique about our study is that we were able to show that this type of activity is universal, as it is present across multiple tasks of different complexity."

The prefrontal cortex is essentially your brain's command center. It regulates things like learning, planning, memory and mood, according to PBS. It's the reason teenagers are often impulsive and irrational; their frontal cortices aren't fully developed, Nautilus reported.

"​This is the first step in trying to understand mechanisms of how we solve complex problems," Shestyuk said. "Future research will focus on how the prefrontal cortex coordinates distributed brain networks during the deliberation and whether we can decode the content of these thought processes."

In other words, after we track a person's thoughts, can we predict what actions and behaviors they'll perform next? The scientists hope to find out.