Single Brain Neurons are Smarter Than You Think

By David Gutierrez | Stimulation of a single brain cell is enough to transmit sensations, Dutch and German researchers have discovered, and report in a study published in the journal Nature.

Researchers have long believed that the key to the brain’s massive processing power lies in the network connections between its 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons.

“The generally accepted model was that networks or arrays make decisions and that the influence of a single neuron is smaller, but this work and other recent studies support a more important role for the individual neuron,” said Douglas Armstrong, the deputy director of the Edinburgh Center for Bioinformatics. “These studies drive down the level at which relevant computation is happening in the brain.”

Scientists had noticed that in creatures with simple nervous systems, such as insects, single nerve cells are capable of transmitting significant information. In the current study, researchers sought to test whether the same effect could be seen in mammals.

Researchers stimulated a single neuron within the brain of a rat, and found that doing so delivered the sensation of touch to the animal and triggered a behavioral response when their whiskers were touched.

The ways that the brain stores and transmits information are still poorly understood, and the current research only raises more questions. Armstrong noted that rather than suggesting that each cell in the brain plays an individual role, the findings suggest instead that single cells are capable of working alone if forced to do so for some reason.

Recent research has also suggested that single nerve cells store more information than previously thought. Each cell contains a variety of junctions with other nerve cells, known as synapses. A recent study found that each synapse in a given cell can act independently, suggesting that multiple bits of information can be processed or stored in single nerve cell simultaneously.