Personnel Management in the Brain


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The brain acts like a dynamic personnel manager, constantly shifting its "workers," the nerve cells that control nearly all bodily functions, from one cell group to another to deal with a variety of ever-changing demands, according to a Weizmann Institute study published this month in Advances in Processing and Pattern Analysis of Biological Signals.

The study disproves the prevailing notion that nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain either act on their own or form permanent working groups. Instead, neurons were shown to belong to a number of different groups and to change their momentary affiliation in accordance with the task to be performed, thus coordinating the processes involved in seeing, hearing and movement control.

Using a groundbreaking technique that makes it possible to record the electrical activity of many individual neurons at the same time, Prof. Ad Aertsen of the Neurobiology Department and colleagues at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have shown that two neurons may closely communicate with each other when processing one type of signal, but completely ignore each other when responding to another kind.

If these findings are corroborated, they will have implications for such fields as neurology, where it is vital to know how a task carried out by one set of neurons may affect the function of other brain cells, and computer science, branches of which deal with simultaneous processing of information flowing along multiple paths.

Prof. Aertsen collaborated with Prof. Eilon Vaadia of the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School and the Center for Neural Computation, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The Weizmann Institute of Science is a major center of scientific research and graduate study located in Rehovot, Israel.