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What is the impact of mental activity on the energy consumption of the human brain?

I am most interested in intellectually demanding tasks (e.g., chess matches, solving a puzzle, taking a difficult exam) versus tasks with a similar posture but less demanding (e.g., reading a newspaper, watching TV).

I heard that energy consumption stays remarkably constant regardless of the mental activity (and energy consumption can be explained by elevated heart rate due to stress). However, it seems to contradict techniques such as fMRI, where the change in metabolism is measured (unless the relative change is really small).

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4 Answers 4

Heads Up: This is all just me theorizing brain activity from the standpoint of a molecular biologist, and there is no real evidence yet for any of it.

It's just speculation at this point since I haven't been able to find any studies that have looked at it, but as a molecular biologist I would imagine that a system like the brain which by necessity would have had to have evolved to act at the drop of hat. As such using glucose directly would be extremely inefficient. More likely they use some other cellular mechanism which stores large amount of energy in an alternative form, and which is directly tied to ion concentrations in the cell (to allow a near-immediate in response to a moving electrical potential). It would then be later regenerated by a constantly flowing glucose source. This would sort of explain sleep actually, if energy "consumption" in the brain is higher when you are sleeping, it would be because your body is consuming glucose and converting it to a more readily usable source. It would also explain mental "exhaustion" after a day of high brain activity. It could also potentially explain dreaming.

I imagine it something like this. I will call the hypothetical protein RLP (RAM-like protein) for easier use. This is likely a simplification because few body processes use a single protein for complex So called because it would likely not be transcribed unilaterally through the brain, only in the RAM-like areas. During the day "primed" IPP gets used in small amounts at a time, acting like RAM to generate a temporary computer-like signal (like a bit switching from 1 to 0). While you are awake, the mind cannot tolerate regenerating large amounts of it at a time

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I read this twice to find an answer to the question but failed. –  terdon Nov 27 '13 at 6:00

This answer relates closely to the classic myth

We only us 10% of our brain power

As with many truisms it holds a grain of truth. Large areas of the brain are specialized for tasks like the visual and motor cortices. Other areas are known to be responsible for spatial memory (hippocampus) and emotional learning (amygdala). Higher order functions like you're describing are classically assigned to the prefrontal cortex, but that means little.

Because there is some level of functional specificity throughout the brain, the fMRI studies you mention generally look at many places in the brain (nearly) simultaneously. They then compare relative activation in different areas under different conditions, and are clever about how they frame their experiments to determine which areas are associated with which responses.

The most common method of measuring activity is through the BOLD response, which measures haemoglobin's oxygenation state as a proxy for the amount of blood flowing into the area under the presumption that there is high metabolic demand there. For the purposes of this discussion, this is fairly useful since glucose delivery should be a reasonable proxy for metabolic demand even if it has limitations when it comes to predicting neural activity.

So which areas are metabolically more active while doing a cognitive activity? In this study they test exactly that. Their basic finding is that chess does increase mental activity in certain areas of the brain, particularly the parietal and occipital lobes in real game conditions, and that the activation was relatively bilteral between the left and right hemispheres. I just glanced through it, but it looks like the authors were surprised that the activation was less pre-frontal and more visuospatial.

I believe this supports the logical conclusion: thinking takes energy. But your brain is used for many things, so the change in activation is best understood in a relative sense. Watching TV also takes energy, preferentially in the visual cortex. As does playing ultimate frisbee, in the motor cortex.

References:

  1. Logothetis, Nikos K., 2008. What we can do and what we cannot do with fMRI, Nature 453, 869-878
  2. Atherton M, Zhuang J, Bart WM, Hu X, He S, 2003. A functional MRI study of high-level cognition. I. The game of chess, Cognitive Brain Research 16.
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I answered on the facts of this question already on skeptics.SE, here and here. You should read both papers very carefully, I highlighted the most important facts but this is a very tricky question, esp. when it comes to defining what mental activitiy is. The papers also give an explanation of how fMRI signal is linked to NEURONAL activity, as far as I remember there is no strong direct link.

You assume in your question that a mathematician solving a differential equation needs higher mental activity than a child reading a book. Is this legitimate? It seems intuitive but also very subjective. In the paper they mention that for the highest and lowest energy consumption we lose consciousness. I will not draw conclusions from this. However, you are talking about conscious mental activities so this may answer your question. To me it means more that the understanding of the human brain in neurobiololgy is on the level of the Rutherford Atomic Model in Physics at the beginning of the 20th century. We have not really got a clue how information is processed and how it's constrained by physical laws and principles of entropy and energy. By reading the 2 papers it looks more like the human brain is not raising energy consumption as a computer would (the computer analogy pretty much fails when compared to the human brain). Most of the energy is used for unconscious processes in "standby mode".

As in physics, extreme cases such as savants and the mentally disabled are probably the best starting point to exclude possible models of human brain and physical boundary conditions as we cannot approach the questions of human brain in a reductionistic way. How can savants like Kim Peek process such huge amounts of information AND save it. He is able to scan books pages just once and know them by heart thereafter. His brain does not, however, consume more energy than an average human brain. So mental activity is probably not a very good term, quantity, or even really suited to be scientifically used. Does neuronal activity mean mental activity (in the sense of your definition?) Reading the papers, the problem is the separation of mental and neuronal activities. At first you have to know what are the basic brain functions and processes that are consuming most of the energy. However the brain is not built in modular way like a computer (most energy is used here for constantly refreshing RAM). So there is not really a objective way to analyse and separate this modular energy consumption, if it even is modular.

In my opinion, most models about information processing in human brain are intuitive guessing (again Rutherford). We need much more detailed experiments and data (Blue Brain Project). fMRi is like analysing a atom with a magnifying glass. Also, the more prosperous approach from a biophysical perspective is probably not the level of "mental activity" but the hard-based amount of information processed by human brains and linked energy consumption (Kim Peek). But therefore we need a model of how this information is saved in human brain. Do normal humans save the same information as Kim Peek scanning a page or are we just unable to recall it consciouscly? When solving a differential equation, how much energy do you consume when recalling facts and is that experience not similar to reading a book? How much is mental logical tasks and is there really a difference at all?

I will stop here, hope you gained some insight that the question is of course important but too early to be definitively answered. I think we will learn a lot more from projects like Blue Brain as we have from fMRI experiments.

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Thanks, though I am far from making analogy with computer, especially when it comes to the information processed. Actually, the energy usage (at least - in principle) can be measured by heat generation, even if nothing is known about the process. "You assume in your question that a mathematician solving a differential equation needs higher mental activity than a child reading a book. Is this legitimated?" - hard to say; better to compare a mathematician during a few hour competition vs control. –  Piotr Migdal Jan 29 '12 at 19:19
    
@PiotrMigdal so what answer are you looking for? Any correlation between "mental activity" and energy, although you do not really define what the difference between neuronal and mental activitiy is? I'm a bit confused now. Measuring generated heat is far more inaccurate than oxygen consumption by fMRI. Even more unknown factors. Also in these papers they actually did compare cognitive tasks vs. resting brain afair. I'm not sure where I should point you to. Maybe you should ask first on cognisci.SE wether reading a book and solving a puzzle is really of very different kind. I tried to point –  Werner Schmitt Jan 29 '12 at 21:15
    
to some neurobiological facts. But lets wait for other answers it's for sure a tricky question, but imho currently too much terminological flaws for a clearcut answer. –  Werner Schmitt Jan 29 '12 at 21:17
    
@WernerSchmitt you may want to participate in this meta discussion =) –  Rory M Jan 29 '12 at 21:27
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@KonradRudolph Yes, modern science is a failure. Drug discovery is still mostly a matter of bruteforcering componends through huge screening libraries and then hoping that a few componends that hit go through clinical trials. Nearly all drugs fail. The number that succeeds is statistically insignificant (p<0.05). We don't even make process at getting better but discovery of new drugs. As each year goes by exponentially more expensive to discover new drugs through Eroom's law. Then we don't even really know how those drugs that do work, work. –  Christian Jun 9 '12 at 20:50

The energy consumption doesn't vary that much between resting and performing tasks, as discussed in a review by Marcus Raichle and Mark A. Mintun:

In the average adult human, the brain represents approximately 2% of the total body weight but approximately 20% of the energy consumed (Clark & Sokoloff 1999), 10 times that predicted by its weight alone. Relative to this high rate of ongoing or “basal” metabolism (usually measured while resting quietly awake with eyes closed), the amount dedicated to task-evoked regional imaging signals is remarkably small.

The regional increases in absolute blood flow associated with imaging signals as measured with PET are rarely more than 5%–10% of the resting blood flow of the brain. These are modest modulations in ongoing circulatory activity that rarely affect the overall rate of brain blood flow during even the most arousing perceptual and vigorous motor activity (Fox et al. 1987, Friston et al. 1990, Lennox 1931, Madsen et al. 1995, Roland et al. 1987, Sokoloff et al. 1955).

[...]

From knowledge of these relationships, one can estimate that if blood flow and glucose utilization increase by 10%, but oxygen consumption does not, the local energy consumption increase owing to a typical task-related response could be as little as 1%. It becomes clear, then, that the brain continuously expends a considerable amount of energy even in the absence of a particular task (i.e., when a subject is awake and at rest).

Techniques like fMRI measure relatively small differences, their existence does not contradict the claim that the energy consumption of the brain doesn't change a lot between the resting state and performing an activity.


1. Raichle ME, Mintun MA. BRAIN WORK AND BRAIN IMAGING. Annual Review of Neuroscience 2006 Jul;29(1):449-476.

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well there seems to be evidence that there is a lower and upper limit of energy concumption for doing cognitive CONSCIOUS/AWARE tasks my linked papers contain ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2855379/bin/… So we have some evidence that energy consumption can not raise on and on, as we loose awareness then. It looks more like we need a distinct frame of energetic activity to allow consciousness at all. That fMRI is a pretty inaccurate method mainly useful for visualizing neuronal correlates is no big news. –  Werner Schmitt Jan 31 '12 at 4:05
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I found Does Thinking Really Hard Burn More Calories? - Scientific American going in the same way - "Unlike physical exercise, mental workouts probably do not demand significantly more energy than usual. Believing we have drained our brains, however, may be enough to induce weariness". –  Piotr Migdal Jul 20 '12 at 23:37
    
What I wanna know, since the brain's energy consumption is a) constant and b) high for an organ its size, is: How can we INCREASE its energy consumption and get thin without needing to work out ?! –  Vincent Vancalbergh Jul 5 '13 at 13:32

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