For decades, neuroscientists have treated the brain somewhat like a Geiger counter: The rate at which neurons fire is taken as a measure of activity, just as a Geiger counter’s click rate indicates the strength of radiation. But new research suggests the brain may be more like a musical instrument. When you play the piano, how often you hit the keys matters, but the precise timing of the notes is also essential to the melody.
“It’s really important not just how many [neuron activations] occur, but when exactly they occur,” said Joshua Jacobs, a neuroscientist and biomedical engineer at Columbia University who reported new evidence for this claim last month in Cell.
For the first time, Jacobs and two coauthors spied neurons in the human brain encoding spatial information through the timing, rather than rate, of their firing. This temporal firing phenomenon is well documented in certain brain areas of rats, but the new study and others suggest it might be far more widespread in mammalian brains. “The more we look for it, the more we see it,” Jacobs said.
Some researchers think the discovery might help solve a major mystery: how brains can learn so quickly. [Continue reading…]