Researchers from Indiana University have published a paper in the journal Neuroscience showing that 70% of all information that passes through the brain are processed in 20% of the neurons within the cortical region of the brain.
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"The discovery of this small but information-rich subset of neurons within cortical regions suggests this sub-network might play a vital role in communication, learning and memory," said Sunny Nigam, a Ph.D. candidate in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Physics, who is the lead author on the study.
These “hub neurons” of the brain represent high-traffic routes or network of processors that passes information around the body system; but they are also prone to damage or disruption which can alter their efficiency to process or route information.
"The brain seems to favor efficiency over vulnerability," said John M. Beggs, associate professor of biophysics in the IU Bloomington Department of Physics, who is senior author on the paper. "In addition to helping us understand how the cortex processes information, this work could shed light on how the brain responds to neurodegenerative diseases that affect the 'network.'"
Since the hub neurons are prone to high metabolic rates, it could sometimes be subjected to damage that results in Alzheimer’s disease, where brain cells and neurons are known to die.
The researchers conducted their research using live and tissue samples from lab rats. Electrical impulses from about 500 neurons within the somatosensory cortex was measured and recorded – because this area is small but processes a large volume of information traffic.
The research cut across the fields of neuroscience, physics, informatics, psychological and brain sciences, prompting the investigators to employ very high-res imaging technology capable of running computer simulations of the brain to examine the flow of information into and outside the neural network in the brain.
"This is the first study to combine such a large number of neurons with such high temporal resolution," Nigam said. "As a result, we can actually detect the direction of the communication flowing between neurons, creating a 'transportation map' from the connections within the cortex."
Nigam revealed that the best way to fully comprehend how the neurons process information is to understand how they work together as a network.
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This research was supported by the National Science Foundation; the National Institutes of Health; the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan; and Indiana University.