This UCLA finding could change scientists' understanding of how the brain works and could lead to new approaches for treating neurological disorders and for developing computers that "think" more like humans.
The research focused on the structure and function of dendrites, which are components of neurons, the nerve cells in the brain. Neurons are large, tree-like structures made up of a body, the soma, with numerous branches called dendrites extending outward.
Somas generate brief electrical pulses called "spikes" in order to connect and communicate with each other. Scientists had generally believed that the somatic spikes activate the dendrites, which passively send currents to other neurons' somas, but this had never been directly tested before. This process is the basis for how memories are formed and stored.
But the UCLA team discovered that dendrites are not just passive conduits. Their research showed that dendrites are electrically active in animals that are moving around freely, generating nearly 10 times more spikes than somas. The finding challenges the long-held belief that spikes in the soma are the primary way in which perception, learning and memory formation occur.
"Dendrites make up more than 90 percent of neural tissue," said senior author Mayank Mehta. "Knowing they are much more active than the soma fundamentally changes the nature of our understanding of how the brain computes information. It may pave the way for understanding and treating neurological disorders, and for developing brain-like computers."
Scientists have generally believed that dendrites meekly sent currents they received from the cell's synapse (the junction between two neurons) to the soma, which in turn generated an electrical impulse. Those short electrical bursts, known as somatic spikes, were thought to be at the heart of neural computation and learning. But the new study demonstrated that dendrites generate their own spikes 10 times more often than the somas.
"What we found indicates that such decisions are made in the dendrites far more often than in the cell body, and that such computations are not just digital, but also analog," Mehta said. "Due to technological difficulties, research in brain function has largely focused on the cell body. But we have discovered the secret lives of neurons, especially in the extensive neuronal branches. Our results substantially change our understanding of how neurons compute."
The research appears in the journal Science....