It’s the least understood organ in the human body: the brain, a massive network of electrically excitable neurons, all communicating with one another via receptors on their tree-like dendrites. Somehow these cells work together to enable great feats of human learning and memory. But how?
Researchers know dendritic spines play a vital role. These tiny membranous structures protrude from dendrites’ branches; spread across the entire dendritic tree, the spines on one neuron collect signals from an average of 1,000 others. But more than a century after they were discovered, their function still remains only partially understood.
A Northwestern University researcher, working in collaboration with scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Janelia Farm Research Campus, has recently added an important piece of the puzzle of how neurons “talk” to one another. The researchers have demonstrated that spines serve as electrical compartments in the neuron, isolating and amplifying electrical signals received at the synapses, the sites at which neurons connect to one another.