Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


The brain’s social network: Nerve cells interact like friends on Facebook


Neurons in the brain are wired like a social network, report researchers from Biozentrum, University of Basel. Each nerve cell has links with many others, but the strongest bonds form between the few cells most similar to each other. The results are published in the journal Nature.

Nerve cells form a bewildering meshwork of connections called synapses – up to several thousand per cell. Yet not all synaptic connections are equal. The overwhelming majority of connections are weak, and cells make only very few strong links.

A neural network is like a social network: The strongest bonds exist between like-minded partners.

“We wanted to see if there are rules that explain how neurons connect in complex networks comprising millions of neurons,” says Professor Thomas Mrsic-Flogel, the leader of the research team from the Biozentrum (University of Basel) and UCL (University College London). “It turns out that one of the rules is quite simple. Like-minded neurons are strongly coupled, while neurons that behave very differently from each other connect weakly or not at all.”

Strong connections between close friends

The researchers focused on the visual area of the cerebral cortex, which receives information from the eye and gives rise to visual perception. Neurons in this part of the brain respond to particular visual patterns, but it is difficult to untangle which cells are synaptically connected because there are many thousands of them densely packed (close to 100.000 per cubic millimeter).

Using a combination of high resolution imaging and sensitive electrical measurements, the researchers found that connections between nearby neurons are organized like a social network. Sites like Facebook keep us in contact with large numbers of acquaintances, but most people have a much smaller circle of close friends. These are usually the friends with which we have most in common, and their opinions can be more important to us than the views of the rest.

"Weak contacts in the brain have little impact, despite being in the majority," says Mrsic-Flogel. “The few strong connections from neurons with similar functions exert the strongest influence on the activity of their partners. This could help them work together to amplify specific information from the outside world.”

Weak connections could be important for learning

But why do neurons share such large numbers of weak connections? “We think this might have to do with learning,” says Dr Lee Cossell, one of the lead authors of the study. “If neurons need to change their behavior, weak connections are already in place to be strengthened, perhaps ensuring rapid plasticity in the brain.” As a result, the brain could quickly adapt to changes in the environment.

This research is part of worldwide effort to shed light on how the brain generates perceptions, thoughts and actions by mapping the brain’s wiring diagram. “It reveals how networks of neurons interact together to process information. Understanding how neurons connect will pave the way for building detailed computer simulations of the brain,” says Mrsic-Flogel.

Research that explores how neurons connect will also be important for understanding neurological diseases. “If we know what the pattern of connections in the brain should look like, then we can start to figure out what happens when things go wrong, for example, in schizophrenia or autism,” adds Mrsic-Flogel.

Original source
Lee Cossell, Maria Florencia Iacaruso, Dylan R. Muir, Rachael Houlton, Elie N. Sader, Ho Ko, Sonja B. Hofer, Thomas D. Mrsic-Flogel
Functional organization of excitatory synaptic strength in primary visual cortex.
Nature, published online 4 February 2015.

Further information
Thomas D. Mrsic-Flogel, Department Biozentrum, University of Basel, Tel. +41 61 267 17 66, email:

Heike Sacher | Universität Basel
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Novel mechanisms of action discovered for the skin cancer medication Imiquimod
21.10.2016 | Technische Universität München

nachricht Second research flight into zero gravity
21.10.2016 | Universität Zürich

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>