The branch-like projections at the end of neurons known as dendrites have been thought to be merely passive participants in the processing of information. However, scientists at the University of North Carolina have now found that dendrites play a very active role in information processing, and serve to increase the brain’s processing power.
From prior research, scientists knew that electrical spikes were generated in dendrites with the same molecules that generate them in axons. What remained in question was whether normal brain activity made use of dendritic spikes. Using tiny pipettes attached to dendrites in the brains of mice, the researchers “listened” to electrical activity in the dendrites and noticed and analyzed patterns. The team noted that dendrites spiked even when the axon did not. The results of their work show that dendrites act as “mini-computers” in the brain that assist with information processing.
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Journal article: Dendritic spikes enhance stimulus selectivity in cortical neurons in vivo. Nature, 2013. doi:10.1038/nature12600
Pictured here is a single neuron in the brain of a mouse. The bright object at the top, middle of the image is a pipette attached to a dendrite, that allowed researchers to measure electrical activity, such as a dendritic spike.
Image credit: Courtesy of Spencer Smith