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UCSD study shows how we perceive world depends on precise division of labor among cells in brain

University of California, San Diego neurobiologists have uncovered evidence that sheds light on the long-standing mystery of how the brain makes sense of the information contained in electrical impulses sent to it by millions of neurons from the body.

In a paper published this week in the early on-line version of the journal Nature, a UCSD team led by Massimo Scanziani explains how neurons, or nerve cells, in the brain sort out information before deciding how to respond. The paper will appear in a forthcoming print issue of Nature.

Light, sound and odors, for example, are transformed by our sensory organs into a code made of series of electrical impulses that travel along neurons from the body to the brain. Information about the onset and the intensity of a stimulus is thought to be sent to the brain by the timing and frequency of these electrical impulses. How information is sorted by the brain has been an open question. The group discovered that different neurons in the brain are dedicated to respond to specific portions of the information.

"Our work shows that deciphering the enormous amount of information that is conveyed to the brain at any time-point is a matter of division of labor between specialized neurons," explains Scanziani, an assistant professor of biology. "Each neuron literally 'picks' the type information it is supposed to process, that it is competent for. Very much like each musician in an orchestra only reads that part of the score of a symphony that was written for his or her own instrument."

Because they needed to see and record electrical impulses from individual nerve cells, the researchers used slices of rat brain, which when bathed in an appropriate solution can be kept alive under a microscope. To mimic incoming information, the first author on the paper, Frdric Pouille, a postdoctoral fellow in Scanziani's laboratory, provided an electrical stimulus--analogous to the score in Scan
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Contact: Sherry Seethaler
sseethaler@ucsd.edu
858-534-4656
University of California - San Diego
2-Jun-2004


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