22 February 2011

New insights into how neurons work

I suppose one should never assume that one fully understands biological processes.  Here are some new developments in what used to be basic neurophysiology:
Neurons are complicated, but the basic functional concept is that synapses transmit electrical signals to the dendrites and cell body (input), and axons carry signals away (output). In one of many surprise findings, Northwestern University scientists have discovered that axons can operate in reverse: they can send signals to the cell body, too.

It also turns out axons can talk to each other. Before sending signals in reverse, axons can perform their own neural computations without any involvement from the cell body or dendrites. This is contrary to typical neuronal communication where an axon of one neuron is in contact with another neuron's dendrite or cell body, not its axon. And, unlike the computations performed in dendrites, the computations occurring in axons are thousands of times slower, potentially creating a means for neurons to compute fast things in dendrites and slow things in axons...

"We have discovered a number of things fundamental to how neurons work that are contrary to the information you find in neuroscience textbooks," said Nelson Spruston, senior author of the paper and professor of neurobiology and physiology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. "Signals can travel from the end of the axon toward the cell body, when it typically is the other way around. We were amazed to see this."..

Similar to our working memory when we memorize a telephone number for later use, the nerve cell can store and integrate stimuli over a long period of time, from tens of seconds to minutes. (That's a very long time for neurons.) Then, when the neuron reaches a threshold, it fires off a long series of signals, or action potentials, even in the absence of stimuli. The researchers call this persistent firing, and it all seems to be happening in the axon...

"This cellular memory is a novelty," Spruston said. "The neuron is responding to the history of what happened to it in the minute or so before."

...led to experiments with multiple neurons, which resulted in perhaps the biggest surprise of all. The researchers found that one axon can talk to another. They stimulated one neuron, and detected the persistent firing in the other unstimulated neuron. No dendrites or cell bodies were involved in this communication.

"The axons are talking to each other, but it's a complete mystery as to how it works..."
For additional information see Science Daily. The data are published in the February issue of Nature Neuroscience.

1 comment:

  1. As a child, most of what I was taught in science was taught as fact. Of course the more I've learned about science, the more I realize we actually know very little about the basic workings of our bodies and our world.

    This is actually exciting, because there is so much to discover. If only people didn't assume they knew so much to start with, they'd be more open to learning things which contradict their existing 'facts'.


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