HAL evolving by thinkingthing
The brain appears to process information more chaotically than has long been assumed.
The passing on of information from neuron to neuron does not 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 from Bonn University 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."
Until now everything seemed quite clear. Nerve cells receive their signals by means of little "arms", known as dendrites. Dendrites pass on the electrical impulses to the cell body, or soma, where they are processed. The component responsible for "distributing" the result is the axon. Axons are long cable-like projections of the cell along which the electrical signals pass until they meet, at a synapse, the dendritic arm of another neuron.
The synapse presents an insurmountable barrier to the neuron's electrical pulses. The brain overcomes this obstruction by means of an amazing signal conversion: the synapse releases chemical messengers, known as neurotransmitters, which diffuse to the dendrites. There, they dock onto specific receptors and generate new electrical impulses. "It was previously thought that neurotransmitters are only released at synapses But new findings indicate that this is not the case."
The brain's white matter contains the "cable ducts" linking the right and left halves of the brain. They consist essentially of axons and ancillary cells. There are no dendrites or even synapses here. "So it is not a place where we would expect to see the release of messengers.
Yet it is in the white matter that scientists have made a remarkable discovery. As soon as an electrical impulse runs through an axon cable, tiny bubbles containing glutamate travel to the axon membrane and release their content into the brain. Glutamate is one of the most important neurotransmitters, being released when signal transmission occurs at synapses.
Researchers were able to demonstrate that certain cells in the white matter react to glutamate: the precursor to what are known as oligodendrocytes. Oligodendrocytes are the brain's "insulating cells". They produce the myelin, a sort of fatty layer that surrounds the axons and ensures rapid retransmission of signals. "It is likely that insulating cells are guided by the glutamate to locate axons and envelope them in a layer of myelin."
As soon as the axons leave the white "cable duct" they enter the brain's grey matter where they encounter their receptor dendrites. Here, the information is passed on at the synapses to the receptor cells. It is possible, however, that on their way though the grey matter the axons probably release glutamate at other points apart from the synapses. Nerve cells and dendrites are closely packed together here. So the axon could not only excite the actual receptor but also numerous other nerve cells.
If this hypothesis is correct, the accepted scientific understanding of the way neurons communicate, which has prevailed for over a hundred years, will have to be revised.
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