Spontaneous activations within neuronal populations can emerge similarly to "task-evoked" activations elicited during cognitive performance or sensory stimulation. We hypothesized that spontaneous activations within a given brain region have comparable functional and physiological properties to task-evoked activations. Using human intracranial electroencephalography with concurrent pupillometry in 3 subjects (2 males, 1 female), we localized neuronal populations in the dorsal anterior insular cortex that showed task-evoked activations correlating positively with the magnitude of pupil dilation during a continuous performance task. The pupillary response peaks lagged behind insular activations by several hundreds of milliseconds. We then detected spontaneous activations, within the same neuronal populations of insular cortex, that emerged intermittently during a wakeful "resting state" and that had comparable electrophysiological properties (magnitude, duration, and spectral signature) to task-evoked activations. Critically, similar to task-evoked activations, spontaneous activations systematically preceded phasic pupil dilations with a strikingly similar temporal profile. Our findings suggest similar neurophysiological profiles between spontaneous and task evoked activations in the human insula and support a clear link between these activations and autonomic functions measured by dynamics of pupillary dilation.Significance StatementMost of our knowledge about activations in the human brain is derived from studies of responses to external events and experimental conditions (i.e., "task-evoked" activations). We obtained direct neural recordings from electrodes implanted in human subjects and showed that activations emerge spontaneously and have strong similarities to task-evoked activations (e.g. magnitude, temporal profile) within the same populations of neurons. Within the dorsal anterior insula, a brain region implicated in salience processing and alertness, activations that are either spontaneous or task-evoked are coupled with brief dilations of the pupil. Our findings underscore how spontaneous brain activity-a major current focus of human neuroimaging studies aimed at developing biomarkers of disease- is relevant to ongoing physiological and possibly self-generated mental processes.
View details for DOI 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0435-20.2020
View details for PubMedID 32631937