Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

UNC neuroscientists discover new ‘mini-neural computer’ in the brain

31.10.2013
Dendrites, the branch-like projections of neurons, were once thought to be passive wiring in the brain. But now researchers at UNC have shown that dendrites actively process information, multiplying the brain’s computing power. The finding could help researchers better understand neurological disorders.

Dendrites, the branch-like projections of neurons, were once thought to be passive wiring in the brain. But now researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have shown that these dendrites do more than relay information from one neuron to the next. They actively process information, multiplying the brain’s computing power.


This is a dendrite in a single neuron in the brain. The bright object from the top is a pipette attached to a dendrite in the brain of a mouse. The pipette allows researchers to measure electrical activity, such as a dendritic spike.

“Suddenly, it’s as if the processing power of the brain is much greater than we had originally thought,” said Spencer Smith, PhD, an assistant professor in the UNC School of Medicine.

His team’s findings, published October 27 in the journal Nature, could change the way scientists think about long-standing scientific models of how neural circuitry functions in the brain, while also helping researchers better understand neurological disorders.

“Imagine you’re reverse engineering a piece of alien technology, and what you thought was simple wiring turns out to be transistors that compute information,” Smith said. “That’s what this finding is like. The implications are exciting to think about.”

Axons are where neurons conventionally generate electrical spikes, but many of the same molecules that support axonal spikes are also present in the dendrites. Previous research using dissected brain tissue had demonstrated that dendrites can use those molecules to generate electrical spikes themselves, but it was unclear whether normal brain activity uses those dendritic spikes. For example, could dendritic spikes be involved in how we see?

The answer, Smith’s team found, is yes. Dendrites effectively act as mini-neural computers, actively processing neuronal input signals themselves.

Directly demonstrating this required a series of intricate experiments that took years and spanned two continents, beginning in senior author Michael Hausser’s lab at University College London, and being completed after Smith and Ikuko Smith, PhD, DVM, set up their own lab at the University of North Carolina. They used patch-clamp electrophysiology to attach a microscopic glass pipette electrode, filled with a physiological solution, to a neuronal dendrite in the brain of a mouse. The idea was to directly “listen” in on the electrical signaling process.

“Attaching the pipette to a dendrite is tremendously technically challenging,” Smith said. “You can’t approach the dendrite from any direction. And you can’t see the dendrite. So you have to do this blind. It’s like fishing but all you can see is the electrical trace of a fish.” And you can’t use bait. “You just go for it and see if you can hit a dendrite,” he said. “Most of the time you can’t.”

But Smith built his own two-photon microscope system to make things easier.

Once the pipette was attached to a dendrite, Smith’s team took electrical recordings from individual dendrites within the brains of anesthetized and awake mice. As the mice viewed visual stimuli on a computer screen, the researchers saw an unusual pattern of electrical signals – bursts of spikes – in the dendrite.

Smith’s team then found that the dendritic spikes occurred selectively, depending on the visual stimulus, indicating that the dendrites processed information about what the animal was seeing.

To provide visual evidence of their finding, Smith’s team filled neurons with calcium dye, which provided an optical readout of spiking. This revealed that dendrites fired spikes while other parts of the neuron did not, meaning that the spikes were the result of local processing within the dendrites.

Study co-author Tiago Branco, PhD, created a biophysical, mathematical model of neurons and found that known mechanisms could support the dendritic spiking recorded electrically, further validating the interpretation of the data.

“All the data pointed to the same conclusion,” Smith said. “The dendrites are not passive integrators of sensory-driven input; they seem to be a computational unit as well.”

His team plans to explore what this newly discovered dendritic role may play in brain circuitry and particularly in conditions like Timothy syndrome, in which the integration of dendritic signals may go awry.

Spencer Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology in the UNC School of Medicine and member of the UNC Neuroscience Center. Study co-authors were Ikuko Smith, PhD, DVM, Tiago Branco, PhD, and Michael Häusser, PhD. This work was supported by a Long-Term Fellowship and a Career Development Award from the Human Frontier Science Program, and a Klingenstein Fellowship to S. Smith, a Helen Lyng White Fellowship to I. Smith, a Wellcome Trust and Royal Society Fellowship, and Medical Research Council (UK) support to T. Branco, and grants from the Wellcome Trust, the European Research Council, and Gatsby Charitable Foundation to M. Häusser.

Thania Benios | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.unc.edu

More articles from Health and Medicine:

nachricht Cystic fibrosis alters the structure of mucus in airways
29.06.2017 | University of Iowa Health Care

nachricht Mice provide insight into genetics of autism spectrum disorders
28.06.2017 | University of California - Davis

All articles from Health and Medicine >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Making Waves

Computer scientists use wave packet theory to develop realistic, detailed water wave simulations in real time. Their results will be presented at this year’s SIGGRAPH conference.

Think about the last time you were at a lake, river, or the ocean. Remember the ripples of the water, the waves crashing against the rocks, the wake following...

Im Focus: Can we see monkeys from space? Emerging technologies to map biodiversity

An international team of scientists has proposed a new multi-disciplinary approach in which an array of new technologies will allow us to map biodiversity and the risks that wildlife is facing at the scale of whole landscapes. The findings are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This international research is led by the Kunming Institute of Zoology from China, University of East Anglia, University of Leicester and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.

Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team proposes that it is now possible to map biodiversity with an accuracy that has not been previously...

Im Focus: Climate satellite: Tracking methane with robust laser technology

Heatwaves in the Arctic, longer periods of vegetation in Europe, severe floods in West Africa – starting in 2021, scientists want to explore the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane with the German-French satellite MERLIN. This is made possible by a new robust laser system of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, which achieves unprecedented measurement accuracy.

Methane is primarily the result of the decomposition of organic matter. The gas has a 25 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, but is not as...

Im Focus: How protons move through a fuel cell

Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future: It is produced with solar power and can be used to generate heat and electricity in fuel cells. Empa researchers have now succeeded in decoding the movement of hydrogen ions in crystals – a key step towards more efficient energy conversion in the hydrogen industry of tomorrow.

As charge carriers, electrons and ions play the leading role in electrochemical energy storage devices and converters such as batteries and fuel cells. Proton...

Im Focus: A unique data centre for cosmological simulations

Scientists from the Excellence Cluster Universe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich have establised "Cosmowebportal", a unique data centre for cosmological simulations located at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The complete results of a series of large hydrodynamical cosmological simulations are available, with data volumes typically exceeding several hundred terabytes. Scientists worldwide can interactively explore these complex simulations via a web interface and directly access the results.

With current telescopes, scientists can observe our Universe’s galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distribution along an invisible cosmic web. From the...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Plants are networkers

19.06.2017 | Event News

Digital Survival Training for Executives

13.06.2017 | Event News

Global Learning Council Summit 2017

13.06.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Nanostructures taste the rainbow

29.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

New technique unveils 'matrix' inside tissues and tumors

29.06.2017 | Life Sciences

Cystic fibrosis alters the structure of mucus in airways

29.06.2017 | Health and Medicine

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>