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Smart neurons: Single neuronal dendrites can perform computations

28.10.2013
When you look at the hands of a clock or the streets on a map, your brain is effortlessly performing computations that tell you about the orientation of these objects. New research by UCL scientists has shown that these computations can be carried out by the microscopic branches of neurons known as dendrites, which are the receiving elements of neurons.

The study, published today (Sunday) in Nature and carried out by researchers based at the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research at UCL, the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology in Cambridge and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, examined neurons in areas of the mouse brain which are responsible for processing visual input from the eyes.


A direct patch-clamp recording from a dendrite of a pyramidal cell in mouse visual cortex in the intact brain. The neuron has been filled with a fluorescent dye via the dendritic recording and imaged using a two-photon microscope. These recordings directly reveal the computations performed by the dendrites during visual processing.

Credit: UCL

The scientists achieved an important breakthrough: they succeeded in making incredibly challenging electrical and optical recordings directly from the tiny dendrites of neurons in the intact brain while the brain was processing visual information.

These recordings revealed that visual stimulation produces specific electrical signals in the dendrites – bursts of spikes – which are tuned to the properties of the visual stimulus.

The results challenge the widely held view that this kind of computation is achieved only by large numbers of neurons working together, and demonstrate how the basic components of the brain are exceptionally powerful computing devices in their own right.

Senior author Professor Michael Hausser commented: "This work shows that dendrites, long thought to simply 'funnel' incoming signals towards the soma, instead play a key role in sorting and interpreting the enormous barrage of inputs received by the neuron. Dendrites thus act as miniature computing devices for detecting and amplifying specific types of input.

"This new property of dendrites adds an important new element to the "toolkit" for computation in the brain. This kind of dendritic processing is likely to be widespread across many brain areas and indeed many different animal species, including humans."

Funding for this study was provided by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the European Research Council, as well as the Human Frontier Science Program, the Klingenstein Foundation, Helen Lyng White, the Royal Society, and the Medical Research Council.

Notes to Editors

1. For more information, please contact David Weston in the UCL Press Office, T: +44 (0) 203 108 3844, out-of-hours: 07917 271 364, Email: d.weston@ucl.ac.uk

2. To speak to the researcher: Prof Michael Hausser, m.hausser@ucl.ac.uk mobile: 07786 061 069. Website: http://www.dendrites.org/

3. Images are available from the UCL Press Office.

4. The paper 'Dendritic spikes enhance stimulus selectivity in cortical neurons in vivo' is published in Nature, embargoed until 18.00 UK Time, Sunday 27 October 2013. Journalists requiring advance copies of the paper should contact the Nature press office.

About UCL (University College London)

Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine.

We are among the world's top universities, as reflected by our performance in a range of international rankings and tables. According to the Thomson Scientific Citation Index, UCL is the second most highly cited European university and the 15th most highly cited in the world.

UCL has nearly 25,000 students from 150 countries and more than 9,000 employees, of whom one third are from outside the UK. The university is based in Bloomsbury in the heart of London, but also has two international campuses – UCL Australia and UCL Qatar. Our annual income is more than £800 million.

David Weston | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.ucl.ac.uk

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