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'Can you hear me now?' Researchers detail how neurons decide how to transmit information
Date:3/25/2011

PITTSBURGHThere are billions of neurons in the brain and at any given time tens of thousands of these neurons might be trying to send signals to one another. Much like a person trying to be heard by his friend across a crowded room, neurons must figure out the best way to get their message heard above the din.

Researchers from the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, a joint program between Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, have found two ways that neurons accomplish this, establishing a fundamental mechanism by which neurons communicate. The findings have been published in an online early edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

"Neurons face a universal communications conundrum. They can speak together and be heard far and wide, or they can speak individually and say more. Both are important. We wanted to find out how neurons choose between these strategies," said Nathan Urban, the Dr. Frederick A. Schwertz Distinguish Professor of Life Sciences and head of the Department of Biological Sciences at CMU.

Neurons communicate by sending out electrical impulses called action potentials or "spikes." These spikes code information much like a version of Morse code with only dots and no dashes. Groups of neurons can choose to communicate information in one of two ways: by spiking simultaneously or by spiking separately.

To find out how the brain decided which method to use to process a sensory input, the researchers looked at mitral cell neurons in the brain's olfactory bulb the part of the brain that sorts out smells and a common model for studying global information processing. Using slice electrophysiology and computer simulations, the researchers found that the brain had a clever strategy for ensuring that the neurons' message was being heard.

Over the short time scale of a few milliseconds, the brain engaged its inhibitory circuitry to make the neurons
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Contact: Jocelyn Duffy
jhduffy@andrew.cmu.edu
412-268-9982
Carnegie Mellon University
Source:Eurekalert  

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