Monday, March 12, 2007

Neuroscience watch: Brain cells release information more widely than thought

Recent research has shown that the brain works more chaotically than previously thought.
The brain appears to process information more chaotically than has long been assumed. This is demonstrated by a new study conducted by scientists at the University of Bonn. The passing on of information from neuron to neuron does not, they show, occur exclusively at the synapses, i.e. the junctions between the nerve cell extensions. Rather, it seems that the neurons release their chemical messengers along the entire length of these extensions and, in this way, excite the neighbouring cells.

The findings of the study are of huge significance since they explode fundamental notions about the way our brain works. Moreover, they might contribute to the development of new medical drugs. The study is due to appear shortly in the academic journal "Nature Neuroscience."

Well, anyone who has listened to someone thinking out loud about who to vote for or where to seat people at a critical dinner party will have likely heard an approximate simulacrum of the chaos. But, that aside, if the information in the brain is really released in waves (?) and not simply at the synapses, then many materialist theories may be due for a revision.

Update: Philosopoher A.J. Meyer reminisces about an early intimation of this discovery:

You wrote:

"But, that aside, if the information in the brain is really released in waves (?) and not simply at the synapses, then many materialist theories may be due for a revision."

This lead me to recall an idea I had almost 40 years ago, which I mention in the following article.

The segment below was taken from the original version, which was written in January 1996 and after a great deal of editing, was published as a chapter in “Fifty Years of Modern Computing,” 1996, Faircount International.

The book's main sponsor, was the organization that funded the development of the first useful computers - the U.S. Army.

In December of 1969, I gave a talk on the future outlook for computers and holography in Houston, Texas, at a conference jointly sponsored by IBM and the Optical Society of America. A static hologram basically can be thought of as a global associative read only memory.[1] That is, the data are not stored at specific addresses as in the digital computer, instead they are stored globally. Much of human memory also appears to have a similar global character. Studies done by Adey with rabbits seemed to indicate that there appeared to be some sort of globalized phase modulation in the rodent's brain waves as they learned mazes. In my talk I made a presumptuous jump and suggested that human memory might have a dynamic holographic structure, that is, a global associative read and write memory. Dennis Gabor took me to task; he rightly stated that almost every major technical advance in information handling or data processing is compared to the human brain. He mentioned that the brain in the past was compared to telephone exchanges, to the ENIAC etc. and he seemed to consider his "baby" just a minor achievement. Since my talk was the last of the conference, we didn't stop talking, we rode to the Houston Airport together all the while animatedly involved in a wide exchange of ideas. I remember that he said that even if true holographic TV could be achieved, that unless there was nearly life-sized reconstruction, it would probably fail. Because, it would be difficult to get involved in a drama composed of tiny toy sized people speaking with "large" voices. Our eyes and brain easily compensate for small two-dimensional TV pictures, but it might be difficult to enjoy a mini-football game or mini-drama on the dining room table with little people scurrying about. As we drove to the airport, Prof. Gabor told me he loved Houston's architecture, I believe this was because he was so interested in the future, as his 1963 book "Inventing the Future" attested. Houston in 1969, just after the lunar landing, certainly gave the impression of a metropolis looking spaceward, or possibly being launched upward. Within about one year and nine months from this last time I saw him, Dennis Gabor was awarded the 1971 Nobel Prize in physics for his invention of holography. He passed on in 1979.


[1]If a hologram H (a1, a2, a3, ..., an-1, an) results from the interference pattern of the combined fields emanating from n objects ai, i=1 to n, then the illumination of H by the radiation emanating from any one the objects or any subset of objects will result in the reconstruction the original set of wave-fronts plus their complex conjugates {ai}*.

To illustrate: {a3, a5} x H (a1, a2, a3,..., an-1, an)= {a1, a2, a3,..., an-1, an}+{a1, a2, a3,..., an-1, an}*.

My next book! The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary, Harper August 2007).

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