Cerebral Cortex, 2014. Paper abstract bibtex
Moment-to-moment brain signal variability is a ubiquitous neural characteristic, yet remains poorly understood. Evidence indicates that heightened signal variability can index and aid efficient neural function, but it is not known whether signal variability responds to precise levels of environmental demand, or instead whether variability is relatively static. Using multivariate modeling of functional magnetic resonance imaging-based parametric face processing data, we show here that within-person signal variability level responds to incremental adjustments in task difficulty, in a manner entirely distinct from results produced by examining mean brain signals. Using mixed modeling, we also linked parametric modulations in signal variability with modulations in task performance. We found that difficulty-related reductions in signal variability predicted reduced accuracy and longer reaction times within-person; mean signal changes were not predictive. We further probed the various differences between signal variance and signal means by examining all voxels, subjects, and conditions; this analysis of over 2 million data points failed to reveal any notable relations between voxel variances and means. Our results suggest that brain signal variability provides a systematic task-driven signal of interest from which we can understand the dynamic function of the human brain, and in a way that mean signals cannot capture.