Monday, March 28, 2011

How neurons choose between encoding and propagating information

March 28, 2011 

Researchers from the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, a joint program between Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the University of Pittsburgh, have found two ways that neurons choose between encoding and propagating information, says Nathan Urban, the Dr. Frederick A. Schwertz Distinguished Professor of Life Sciences at CMU.

The researchers looked at mitral cell neurons in the brain’s olfactory bulb. Using slice electrophysiology and computer simulations, the researchers found that the brain engaged its inhibitory circuitry to make the neurons fire in synchrony.

They showed that groups of neurons can choose to communicate information in one of two ways: by spiking simultaneously or by spiking separately. Over short time intervals, individual neurons spiked simultaneously to produce the same short message, increasing the effectiveness with which activity was transmitted to other brain areas.

Over longer time intervals, the inhibitory circuitry generated a form of competition between neurons, so that the more strongly activated neurons silenced the activity of weakly activated neurons and spiked separately, enhancing the differences in their firing rates and making their activity less correlated. Each neuron was able to communicate a different piece of information about the stimulus without being drowned out by the chatter of competing neurons.

The findings can be applied beyond the olfactory system to other neural systems, and perhaps even be used in other biological systems, says Urban.

Ref.: “Timescale-dependent shaping of correlation by olfactory bulb lateral inhibition,” PNAS Online Early Edition, March 21, 2011.

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