Our brain is 10 times more active than scientists could imagine

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For our sophisticated readers, it is probably a common understanding, that our whole learning and processing system, the brain, is based on calculations that happen between neurons, the brain cells. Neurons are tree-like structures, in which one could think of branches being dendrites that receive information from other neurons, the tree trunk being the cell body, and the roots being the axon that again transmits information further to other cells. The trees are aligned in a line so that the root of one tree is connected to the branches of the next tree.

Along with this metaphor, it has been thought that learning happens when the root of one tree and the trunk of another tree are active at the same time. The simultaneous activation is made possible by the branches that transfer the information from one tree to the next.

Our brain is 10 times more active than scientists could imagine

However, in a recently published study, a research group from the University of California could show, that information transfer through the branches is not as passive as has been previously thought. Rather, the branches have a very active role themselves in learning processes, such that they actively take part in computing and not just transferring signals. Therefore, they allow learning to take place without the “tree trunk” having to be active.

Why is this finding interesting and important? Firstly, the branches make up over 90 % of our brain tissue. With these new findings, it has become clear, that the most part of our brain, that was previously thought to just transfer information, actually acts as mini-computers constantly computing information. In other words, while previously information computation was thought to happen merely in each tree trunk, we now know that each branch of each tree does their own computations, multiplying the information processing potential of our brain.

Second, the calculation methods were different in the branches than in the trunk. While the trunk works rigidly like a digital computer that processes information in an “all-or-nothing” fashion (they either create a signal or not), the branches additionally perform analog computations, which scientists could not measure. Therefore, it is not just that the brain’s processing capacity is larger than previously thought, but also the flexibility of calculations is what our digital and analog computers can do combined.

These new findings have revolutionized our understanding of our own information processing system. Not only is it now possible to use these findings to improve computational technologies, as quantum computers, according to the new models from our brain, but the findings also open new doors into developing new treatments for neurological diseases.

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Sources:

[1] Moore, J. et al. Dynamics of cortical dendritic membrane potential and spikes in freely behaving rats. Science, 09 March (2017).

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