Dendrites, the branch-like projections of neurons, were once thought to be passive wiring in the brain. But now researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have shown that these dendrites do more than relay information from one neuron to the next. They actively process information, multiplying the brain’s computing power.
“Suddenly, it’s as if the processing power of the brain is much greater than we had originally thought,” said Spencer Smith, PhD, an assistant professor in the UNC School of Medicine.
His team’s findings, published October 27 in the journal Nature, could change the way scientists think about long-standing scientific models of how neural circuitry functions in the brain, while also helping researchers better understand neurological disorders.
“Imagine you’re reverse engineering a piece of alien technology, and what you thought was simple wiring turns out to be transistors that compute information,” Smith said. “That’s what this finding is like. The implications are exciting to think about.”
Axons are where neurons conventionally generate electrical spikes, but many of the same molecules that support axonal spikes are also present in the dendrites. Previous research using dissected brain tissue had demonstrated that dendrites can use those molecules to generate electrical spikes themselves, but it was unclear whether normal brain activity involved those dendritic spikes. For example, could dendritic spikes be involved in how we see?
First glial cells ( http://www.ohsu.edu/blogs/brain/2013/04/19/glia-neurons-intelligence-in-humans/ ) now dendrites!