While we have learned a lot over the last couple hundred years, there’s still a lot about the human body that we don’t know or understand. One of the organs we know the least about is our own brain. Recently, however, scientists discovered a unique brain signal that they haven’t ever seen before. They say this might mean that our brains are even more powerful computers than we realized. (1)
Scientists Discover New Form Of Brain Signal
Early last year, German and Greek scientists were measuring the electrical activity in sections of brain tissue from surgeries on epileptic patients. They found a new type of brain signal occurring in these cells. The scientists found individual cells that didn’t just use sodium (NA) ions to fire or transmit messages, but calcium (CA) as well. The combination of NA and CA ions caused calcium-mediated dendritic action potentials (dCaAPs). These have never been seen before.
How dCaAPs Work?
The brain works by a pulse of flowing ions called an action potential. This is an opening and closing of channels that exchange particles such as chlorine, sodium, and potassium. The brain then manages those messages chemically at the end of these branches called dendrites. These are essentially the traffic lights of the nervous system.
“The dendrites are central to understanding the brain because they are at the core of what determines the computational power of single neurons,” Humboldt University neuroscientist Matthew Larkum told Walter Beckwith. (2)
These “traffic lights”, so-to-speak, have essentially two ways of passing along messages:
- AND messages: If x and y are triggered, the message is passed along
- OR messages: If x or y is triggered, the message is passed along
The Complex Cerebral Cortex
The cerebral cortex is one of the most complex sections of the brain. It has several deep, thick layers that are responsible for complicated functions such as sensation, thought, and motor control. It is here where the scientists found these new calcium-related brain signals. They tested their results from brain tissues taken from other samples from the same section of non-epileptic people to make sure that these dendritic action potentials weren’t only unique to epilepsy.
One of the most important bits is that brain signals can occur even if sodium is blocked. It was only when they blocked calcium did all electrical action in the cells stop. They then modeled the way this new kind of action-potential would work in the actual brain cortex which revealed even more exciting surprises.
They discovered that the individual neurons could act as exclusive OR signals. These only permit signals when another is graded in a particular way. Of course, the researchers still have a lot of unanswered questions that they need to look into. They also need to research more about how these cells function in a living system. Still, this is exciting news because it can not only help us with human health, especially related to the brain, but also to technology and computer hardware.
“We are missing the information about how they operate when the whole brain is active, which can help in answering this question,” said study co-author neuroscientist Matthew Larkum. (3)
The scientists do believe, however, that it is possible that these dendrites are part of what contributes to making us big-brained humans as opposed to other animals. They say they need to conduct further research to find out if these dendrites are just in the human brain or if there are other animals as well.
We Don’t Yet Know What The Future Of This Research Holds
The scientists, as well as many other groups of researchers, I’m sure, will continue to study these neurons further. The more we understand our brain, the closer we can come to helping brain conditions. Also, the better understanding we will have of other aspects of the human body and health. As already mentioned, these electrical messaging systems in our brains can help us to further develop more advanced technology by mimicking to some degree these kinds of systems. This is definitely an exciting discovery and we can’t wait for more research on these brain signals to come out in the future.
- “Dendritic action potentials and computation in human layer 2/3 cortical neurons.” Science. Albert Gidon, et al. January 3, 2020.
- “A Never-Before-Seen Type of Signal Has Been Detected in The Human Brain.” Science Alert. Mike Mcrae. June 28, 2021.
- “Dendrite Activity May Boost Brain Processing Power.” AAAS. Walter Beckwith. January 2, 2020.