In tiny worms, researchers find spiking neurons -- and clues about brain computation

ScienceDaily | 10/2/2018 | Staff
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To process vast amounts of data, the brain uses a kind of digital code. Its cells produce discrete bursts of electric current, known as action potentials, that function as the zeros and ones of the nervous system. This code is assumed to be a vital aspect of computation in animals -- that is, in most animals. The tiny roundworm C. elegans has long been considered a curious exception; until now, action potentials had never been observed in the organism.

But in a recent study, Rockefeller scientist Cori Bargmann and her colleagues, Qiang Liu, Phil Kidd, and May Dobosiewicz, discovered, among other things, a C. elegans olfactory neuron that produces action potentials. The finding, published in Cell, overturns decades of dogma and could help scientists understand fundamental principles of brain computation.

Neurons - Chemical - Messages - Message - State

Neurons communicate with one another by exchanging chemical messages. Each message alters the state of the receiving cell; and as a neuron collects more and more chemical input, it approaches a threshold of activation. An action potential occurs when the cell reaches this threshold, at which point the neuron is said to "fire" or "spike" as an electrical impulse ripples through its extremity. In producing this spike, the cell translates analog chemical messages into digital electric code.

Despite the apparent importance of action potentials, for years researchers believed that C. elegans and other nematodes simply didn't use this information processing strategy.

Class - Animals - Neurons - Bargmann - Torsten

"There's this whole class of animals where the neurons didn't seem to spike," says Bargmann, the Torsten N. Wiesel Professor. "So our question was: Well, what do these neurons do?" Seeking an answer, her team set out to measure the electrical behavior of C. elegans neurons -- every single one of them, if necessary.

"The C. elegans has just 302 neurons, so it's one of the few animals where you can look at each...
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