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Neurobiologists find that weak electrical fields in the brain help neurons fire together
Date:2/2/2011

as epileptic seizures, which induce very strong fields. Few studies, however, had actually assessed the impact of far weakerbut very commonnon-epileptic fields. "The reason is simple," Anastassiou says. "It is very hard to conduct an in vivo experiment in the absence of extracellular fields," to observe what changes when the fields are not around.

To tease out those effects, Anastassiou and his colleagues, including Caltech neuroscientist Christof Koch, the Lois and Victor Troendle Professor of Cognitive and Behavioral Biology and professor of computation and neural systems, focused on strong but slowly oscillating fields, called local field potentials (LFP), that arise from neural circuits composed of just a few rat brain cells. Measuring those fields and their effects required positioning a cluster of tiny electrodes within a volume equivalent to that of a single cell bodyand at distances of less than 50 millionths of a meter from one another.

"Because it had been so hard to position that many electrodes within such a small volume of brain tissue, the findings of our research are truly novel," Anastassiou says. Previously, he explains, "nobody had been able to attain this level of spatial and temporal resolution."

An "unexpected and surprising finding was how already very weak extracellular fields can alter neural activity," he says. "For example, we observed that fields as weak as one millivolt per millimeter robustly alter the firing of individual neurons, and increase the so-called "spike-field coherence"the synchronicity with which neurons fire with relationship to the field."In the mammalian brain, we know that extracellular fields may easily exceed two to three millivolts per millimeter. Our findings suggest that under such conditions, this effect becomes significant."

What does that mean for brain computation? "Neuroscientists have long speculated about this," Anastassiou says. "Increased spike-field coherency may subst
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Contact: Deborah Williams-Hedges
debwms@caltech.edu
626-395-3227
California Institute of Technology
Source:Eurekalert  

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