When it comes to the brain, it seems like new insights are being discovered every day. Firstly, we now know that the brain is adaptable; you’re not stuck with what you were born with. Secondly, you can actually develop new mental abilities throughout your lifetime.
Until recently, the scientific community believed that soma brain cells were the main powerhouse in your brain. In other words, the main engine that powered all your thoughts and actions.
New research from scientists at UCLA suggest, however, that the dendrites could be generating 10 times more neuron activity than the soma. A dendrite functions as an “antennae” of the nerve cell; it receives signals from other nerve cells.
Dendrites make up over 90% of our neuronal tissue. Consequently, this means that your brain is capable of producing over 100 times more electrical signals than previously believed.
As dendrites are extremely long and fragile branch-like structures, measuring them proved to be too difficult. Nevertheless, the researchers at UCLA came up with a technique for investigating how they work in rats.
The technique led to the discovery of the supercharged electrical activity of dendrites. One of the researchers explained: “We have discovered the secret lives of neurons, especially in the extensive neuronal branches…[this] fundamentally changes the nature of our understanding of how the brain computes information.”
The study also led to a second surprise, that the brain is both digital and analogue. Similar to a computer, the digital aspect of our brains allows us to switch between on and off neuron states to communicate. Dendrites, on the other hand, seem to function more analogously. For instance, they perform wave-like states of electrical signals, more like radio or TV transmissions, to send messages in the brain.
This discovery is revolutionary because it reveals that brain states can be vastly more complex that previously imagined. The study also revealed that dendrite activity is responsible for overall rat behaviour, far more often than activity in the main part of neurons.
The study’s rich findings will undoubtedly help open up new research avenues that could radically change our understanding of the human brain. In other words, we may be able to find out what the brain is capable of and how it learns at a more fundamental level.
"Our findings indicate that learning may take place when the input neuron is active at the same time that a dendrite is active - and it could be that different parts of dendrites will be active at different times, which would suggest a lot more flexibility in how learning can occur within a single neuron," said Jason Moore, one of the team members.
This potential paradigm shift in neuroscience may also increase the importance of neuroplasticity. It could potentially shed light on how some cognitive interventions can produce dramatic improvements in mental performance. With 9 times more brain matter responsible for how we perceive, think and behave, finding ways to effectively tap into neuroplasticity will be increasingly important.
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