Memory capacity of human brain is much more than thoughtAmy Walsh (Author) Published Date : Jan 22, 2016 21:04 ET
Salk researchers and collaborators have achieved critical insight into the size of neural connections, putting the memory capacity of the brain far higher than common estimates.
This is a real bombshell in the field of neuroscience, says Terry Sejnowski, Salk professor and co-senior author of the paper, which was published in eLife. We discovered the key to unlocking the design principle for how hippocampal neurons function with low energy but high computation power.
Our memories and thoughts are the result of patterns of electrical and chemical activity in the brain. An output 'wire' (an axon) from one neuron connects to an input 'wire' (a dendrite) of a second neuron. Signals travel across the synapse as chemicals called neurotransmitters to tell the receiving neuron whether to convey an electrical signal to other neurons. Each neuron can have thousands of these synapses with thousands of other neurons.
When we first reconstructed every dendrite, axon, glial process, and synapse from a volume of hippocampus the size of a single red blood cell, we were somewhat bewildered by the complexity and diversity amongst the synapses, says Kristen Harris, co-senior author of the work and professor of neuroscience at the University of Texas, Austin.
The Salk team, while building a 3D reconstruction of rat hippocampus tissue (the memory center of the brain), noticed something unusual. In some cases, a single axon from one neuron formed two synapses reaching out to a single dendrite of a second neuron, signifying that the first neuron seemed to be sending a duplicate message to the receiving neuron.
At first, the researchers didn't think much of this duplicity, which occurs about 10 percent of the time in the hippocampus. But Tom Bartol, a Salk staff scientist, had an idea: if they could measure the difference between two very similar synapses such as these, they might glean insight into synaptic sizes, which so far had only been classified in the field as small, medium and large.
To do this, researchers used advanced microscopy and computational algorithms they had developed to image rat brains and reconstruct the connectivity, shapes, volumes and surface area of the brain tissue down to a nanomolecular level.
The scientists expected the synapses would be roughly similar in size, but were surprised to discover the synapses were nearly identical.
It was known before that the range in sizes between the smallest and largest synapses was a factor of 60 and that most are small.
But armed with the knowledge that synapses of all sizes could vary in increments as little as eight percent between sizes within a factor of 60, the team determined there could be about 26 categories of sizes of synapses, rather than just a few.
Our data suggests there are 10 times more discrete sizes of synapses than previously thought, says Bartol. In computer terms, 26 sizes of synapses correspond to about 4.7 bits of information.
What makes this precision puzzling is that hippocampal synapses are notoriously unreliable. When a signal travels from one neuron to another, it typically activates that second neuron only 10 to 20 percent of the time.
We had often wondered how the remarkable precision of the brain can come out of such unreliable synapses, says Bartol. One answer, it seems, is in the constant adjustment of synapses, averaging out their success and failure rates over time. The team used their new data and a statistical model to find out how many signals it would take a pair of synapses to get to that eight percent difference.
The researchers calculated that for the smallest synapses, about 1,500 events cause a change in their size/ability (20 minutes) and for the largest synapses, only a couple hundred signaling events (1 to 2 minutes) cause a change.
This means that every 2 or 20 minutes, your synapses are going up or down to the next size. The synapses are adjusting themselves according to the signals they receive, says Bartol.
The implications of what we found are far-reaching, adds Sejnowski.
Memory capacity of human brain is much more than thought