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Brain 'avalanches' may help store memories

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Meeting a friend you haven't seen in years brings on a sudden surge of pleasant memories. You might even call it an avalanche.

Recent studies suggest that avalanches in your brain could actually help you to store memories. Last year, scientists at the National Institutes of Health placed slices of rat brain tissue on a microelectrode array and found that the brain cells activated each other in cascades called "neuronal avalanches."

New computer models now suggest that these brain avalanches may be optimal for information storage. If so, certain neurochemical treatments might someday improve life for people with memory problems. A report of this work will be published Feb. 4 in the journal Physical Review Letters.

"When most people think of an avalanche, they imagine something huge," said biophysicist John Beggs, now a professor in the Biocomplexity Institute at Indiana University Bloomington, who helped perform the NIH experiments. "But avalanches come in all sizes, and the smaller ones are most common. That's just what we found in the brain cells."

An avalanche roaring down a mountainside may seem to be wildly out of control, but actually it is governed by certain equations. These same equations also govern such seemingly unrelated events as forest fires and earthquakes -- as well as some neural activity in the brain, Beggs said. All are examples of phenomena that can be studied with the new science of complexity, which deals with all kinds of complex systems ranging from living cells to national economies.

Biocomplexity is a cross-disciplinary field involving physics, chemistry, computer science, mathematics and the life sciences. A description of the IU Biocomplexity Institute, headquartered in IU Bloomington's Department of Physics, is available at http://www.indiana.edu/~iufcs/issue7/solving.shtml.

To find out the possible
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Contact: Hal Kibbey
hkibbey@indiana.edu
812-855-0074
Indiana University
26-Jan-2005


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