A new discovery that dendrites - projections of neurons in the brain - actively process information could help us better understand neurological disorders, researchers say.
Neuroscientists from University College London (UCL) in the UK and the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill made this discovery, which was published recently in the journalNature, after years of research.
"Suddenly, it's as if the processing power of the brain is much greater than we had originally thought," says Spencer Smith, assistant professor from the UNC School of Medicine.
The team notes previous research has demonstrated that dendrites use molecules supporting electrical spikes in axons - nerve fibers that direct electrical pulses away from the cell body - to create electrical spikes themselves.
However, it was unclear whether our normal brain activity uses those spikes from dendrites. The neuroscientists found that dendrites do actively process neuronal input signals on their own, acting as "mini-neural computers."
The researchers say that their findings could change the way the scientific community thinks about how neural circuitry works in the brain.
"Imagine you're reverse engineering a piece of alien technology," says Smith, "and what you thought was simple wiring turns out to be transistors that compute information. That's what this finding is like. The implications are exciting to think about."
The team from UNC plans to do further research into what this newly discovered role of dendrites might play in brain circuitry, particularly in conditions where the integration of dendritic signals may malfunction.
Smith explained "It is tremendously difficult to develop treatments for neurological disorders like autism andschizophrenia, because we don't understand how the healthy brain functions, let alone what goes wrong in those diseases. Thus basic neuroscience research, like our study, is an essential step on the long road to new treatments."
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