Carnegie Mellon researchers identify ‘Facebook neurons’

PITTSBURGH — Carnegie Mellon University researchers have found that within the brain’s neocortex lies a subnetwork of highly active neurons that behave much like people in social networks. Like Facebook, these neuronal networks have a small population of highly active members who give and receive more information than the majority of other members, says Alison Barth, associate professor of biological sciences at Carnegie Mellon and a member of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC). By identifying these neurons, scientists will now be able to study them further and increase their understanding of the neocortex, which is thought to be the brain’s center of higher learning.

Up to trillions of neurons make up the neocortex, the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for a number of important functions, including sensory perception, motor function, spatial reasoning, conscious thought and language. Although neuroscientists have been studying the neocortex for 40 years, technologies had only allowed them to look broadly at general areas of the brain, but not at the high-resolution of individual neurons. While they believed only a small proportion of neurons were doing most of the work in the neocortex, they couldn’t see if this was indeed the case.

In the current study, published in the journal Neuron, the researchers used a specialized transgenic mouse model developed by Barth to overcome these challenges and clearly see which neocortical neurons were the most active. The model links green fluorescent protein (GFP) with the activity-dependent gene fos, causing the neuron to light up when it is activated. The researchers, including former Carnegie Mellon and CNBC postdoctoral student Lina Yassin, who is now at the Ludwig-Maximillians-Universtat Munich, took recordings from both fos-labeled and unlabeled neurons and found that the most active neurons were expressing the fos gene. The researchers were then able to isolate the active neurons using imaging techniques and take electrophysiological recordings from the neurons, allowing the researchers to begin to understand the mechanisms underlying the increased activity.

Barth and colleagues were able to see that the fos-expressing neurons weren’t more active because they were intrinsically more excitable; in fact, the neurons seemed to be calmer or more suppressed than their neighboring, inactive neurons. What made them more active was their input.

According to Barth, it seems that this active network of neurons in the neocortex acts like a social network. There is a small, but significant, population of neurons that are more connected than other neurons. These neurons do most of the heavy lifting, giving and receiving more information than the rest of the neurons in their network.

“It’s like Facebook. Most of your friends don’t post much — if at all. But, there is a small percentage of your friends on Facebook who update their status and page often. Those people are more likely to be connected to more friends, so while they’re sharing more information, they’re also receiving more information from their expanded network, which includes other more active participants,” Barth said.

The findings stand to have a dramatic impact on neuroscience. Now that researchers are able to identify and visualize these active cells they can begin to determine why they are more active and how stable the activity is. The Carnegie Mellon researchers plan to study these neurons to see what, if any, role these neurons play in learning.

The results also will help to further computational neuroscience, specifically in the area of sparse coding. In sparse coding, scientists hope to study how the brain recruits a small population of neurons to encode information. This research will for the first time allow for the study of the electrophysiological properties of strongly responsive but sparsely populated cells.

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, NeuroCure, the Deutsch Forschung Gemeinshaft, the Swiss-German Research Unit “Barrel Cortex Function” and the Max-Delbruck Center.

Other researchers on the study include: Brett Benedetti and Jing Wen of Carnegie Mellon; and Jean-Sebastien Jouhanneau and James Poulet of the Max-Delbruck Center for Molecular Medicine and Neuroscience Research Center of the Charite Universitatmedizin in Berlin.


About Carnegie Mellon University: Carnegie Mellon (www.cmu.edu) is a private, internationally ranked research university with programs in areas ranging from science, technology and business, to public policy, the humanities and the fine arts. More than 11,000 students in the university’s seven schools and colleges benefit from a small student-to-faculty ratio and an education characterized by its focus on creating and implementing solutions for real problems, interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation. A global university, Carnegie Mellon’s main campus in the United States is in Pittsburgh, Pa. It has campuses in California’s Silicon Valley and Qatar, and programs in Asia, Australia, Europe and Mexico. The university is in the midst of a $1 billion fundraising campaign, titled “Inspire Innovation: The Campaign for Carnegie Mellon University,” which aims to build its endowment, support faculty, students and innovative research, and enhance the physical campus with equipment and facility improvements.

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18 thoughts on “Carnegie Mellon researchers identify ‘Facebook neurons’”

  1. The identification of “Facebook-like” neurons is an important breakthrough in the field of neuroscience. Albeit conclusive evidence is as yet largely remote, the proposal will indubitably broaden further horizens in the field.

    Aside from the possibilities offered by the existing technological advances, I am pinning hopes on Nanotechnology. I believe that the invention of a specialised nanorobot is likely to revolutionize the field to a large extent. Further avenues of investigation are in store for neuroscience.

  2. Maybe the next study about the ways some neurons interact with others can be done on those to seek to profit on net by using the subliminal suggestions of shutdown to induce panic responses into a resource that has paid and paid again. These people work from the basic theorem “there is a sucker born every minute.” Those who invested their life savings into a company who has no actual assets [Enron] lost their investments. Those who were advised took their money and ran. Virtual reality is only real for those who invest their lives into a system with no return on their money. Proving another tried but truthful cliche: There is no virtue among thieves.

  3. I believe we have a subconsious brain as well as our day to day brain,which is more clever than what we think and has a lot of information that we do not use and unless an icon in the brain activates it we do not know its there. same as with a computer. Our brains are a very advanced computer. Where does our hidden talents come from? We are certainly not taught lot of things, some people call it a gift that we have but where does it originate? Some people are ill and they get worse like a virus in the computer but others are positive and get strong again. On facebook there are people who pull others down and leave an icon in the persons brain who it is intended for and make them feel they are worthless yet others on facebook give positive thoughts and the other person feels good and opens up lots of clever feedback and thoughts.

  4. LOL : } Some of the Replies R Funny : } Enyway Some of the Report Is somewhat right from where I am, Having Nerve trouble in My head I understand Alot of things others dont, Such As the “HIGHER LEARNING” : } U See I Look Inside MyselfSort of Exraying my own sel, And yes if u really know yourself, then u Learn how your body comunicates with all the other parts of your own body, PRETTY KEWL actually : } I Know mostly b4 enybody can tell me whats going on with me as do u if u pay attention to u : } Far as the Neurons Communicating with each other my guess is thet is the wierd Siren sound I hear with my severe head aches, My body is communicating to find what is wrong, Enyway I understand more then most what is happening to me, Thanks and see ya around, Always Dawn aka DAMG : }

  5. Facebook is not Zuckerberg’s own company and now there are many share holders. It can never be shutdown until the intellectual programmers all around the world are dead. March 15th is the date that compromises your system security those who clicked the link. Happy Facebooking …

  6. Уважаемые исследователи,
    Энергия природы рождает биоэнергию жизни.
    Человечество имеет биоэнеогию с персональными биоэнергетическими импульсами.
    Эти импульсы имеет всё живое на Планете.
    В каких условиях живём, тем и выростаем, от получения биоэнергетических импульсов окружения.
    Самое важное, – нельзя портить окружающую среду незавершёнными технологиями, особенно ядерной энергетики и прочее.
    Краткая фраза Вам для аналитических исследований.
    Леонид. Украина. [email protected]

  7. yea, and pigs will fly, the world is coming to an end, and some people are sooooooo gullible.
    Geeesh. Grow up.

    • The above was a reply to “yessica” about FB being shut down on the 15 of March and the link he/she posted….
      Please do not buy into it, or click the link.

    • Will there be smarter way to spam and mislead people to your “Oh-****-who-cares-I-don’t-give-a-damn” app which is mostly like doing a idiotic survey that ask you to send SMS and scam several bucks a day ???

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