Physicists Overturn a 100-Year-Old Assumption On How Brain Cells Work

An anonymous reader quotes a report from ScienceAlert: A study published in 2017 has overturned a 100-year-old assumption on what exactly makes a neuron “fire,” posing new mechanisms behind certain neurological disorders. To understand why this is important, we need to go back to 1907 when a French neuroscientist named Louis Lapicque proposed a model to describe how the voltage of a nerve cell’s membrane increases as a current is applied. Once reaching a certain threshold, the neuron reacts with a spike of activity, after which the membrane’s voltage resets. What this means is a neuron won’t send a message unless it collects a strong enough signal. Lapique’s equations weren’t the last word on the matter, not by far. But the basic principle of his integrate-and-fire model has remained relatively unchallenged in subsequent descriptions, today forming the foundation of most neuronal computational schemes. According to the researchers, the lengthy history of the idea has meant few have bothered to question whether it’s accurate.

The experiments approached the question from two angles — one exploring the nature of the activity spike based on exactly where the current was applied to a neuron, the other looking at the effect multiple inputs had on a nerve’s firing. Their results suggest the direction of a received signal can make all the difference in how a neuron responds. A weak signal from the left arriving with a weak signal from the right won’t combine to build a voltage that kicks off a spike of activity. But a single strong signal from a particular direction can result in a message. This potentially new way of describing what’s known as spatial summation could lead to a novel method of categorizing neurons, one that sorts them based on how they compute incoming signals or how fine their resolution is, based on a particular direction. Better yet, it could even lead to discoveries that explain certain neurological disorders.

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