A 3D illustration of pulses of neurons in the brain. A 3D illustration of pulses of neurons in the brain. A 3D illustration of pulses of neurons in the brain. (Photo: Romanova Natali / Shutterstock)

Physicists have overturned a 100-year-old assumption on how your brain works

New research could lead to better understanding of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Your brain is like a computer hard drive. Hit a button on your keyboard, and a signal is sent to your computer's motherboard. Open a document, compose an email, check your online banking balance. Click, signal, action.

Your brain works in similar ways. When you think about opening the refrigerator door or walking across the room, a neuron in your brain is sent from one side to the other. With those instructions, your brain now knows the action it's supposed to take. The organ that's nestled comfortably between your ears is made up of about a trillion of these neurons. These cells that power your brain have to constantly be at the ready for whatever task you throw at them.

Now, a group of Israeli physicists has overturned a 100-year-old assumption on how these neurons act. They've done research into what exactly makes a neuron "fire." These new types of experiments call into question the activity of hundreds of labs and thousands of scientific studies of neuroscience, and could impact research into degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Understanding the behavior of these neurons might be a starting point for discovering the origin of these illnesses.

The new research questions the seminal work done by French neuroscientist Louis Lapicque, whose theory on how neurons operate was first proposed in 1907. He was nominated for a Nobel Prize for his research. Despite the new findings, it remains one of the most popular models of how our brains function.

Physicist Ido Kanter – whose research spans the gamut from complexity theory and random numbers to chaotic lasers – led the new study. "We reached this conclusion using a new experimental setup, but in principle these results could have been discovered using technology that has existed since the 1980s. The belief that has been rooted in the scientific world for 100 years resulted in this delay of several decades," said Professor Kanter, who collaborated with a team of colleagues at Bar-Ilan University in Israel for the new project.

Their study, which was supported in part by a grant from the Council for Higher Education of Israel, was published in a recent edition of the journal Scientific Reports.


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