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Even at small scales, the big decisions are made at the water cooler

When a group of people tries to decide how to carry out an important task, it is sometimes said that the pivotal discussions do not happen in large, well-attended meetings, but in one-on-one conversations around the water cooler.

It turns out that among individual neurons in our brains, the same may hold true.

Likening the process to the sort of casual conversations one might have at a cocktail party, William Bialek and his research team have found that retinal ganglion cells, the nerve cells along the back of our eyes that transmit visual signals to the brain, organize their actions based on communications they have with other individual cells rather than on group-style discussions. The findings, derived from experiments with and mathematical models of groups of 40 cells in the retinas of salamanders, could shed light on how brain cells work as a team.

"We have found that it is possible to understand the group behavior of neural cells based solely on knowledge of these pair interactions," said Bialek, the John Archibald Wheeler/Battelle Professor in Physics at Princeton. "From these pair-wise communications, a consensus emerges as to what message will be sent from the eye to the brain. But it comes from many small discussions, not one large one."

The research paper, which Bialek wrote with Princeton colleagues Michael Berry, Ronen Segev and Elad Schneidman, appears in today's (April 20) edition of the journal Nature.

"By eavesdropping on the 'conversations' of individual nerve cells, these researchers learned to predict how small groups of nerve cells in the eye would behave," said Dr. C. John Whitmarsh, a biophysicist at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which partially supported the work. "This really is a fantastic result, and could help us understand how brain cells work together to make decisions."

Retinal ganglion cells have often shed light on the workings of the brain, since the ganglion
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Contact: Chad Boutin
cboutin@princeton.edu
609-258-5729
Princeton University
20-Apr-2006


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