‘Jaw-dropping moment’: Scientists discover mysterious new communication mechanism in the brain
Despite major scientific breakthroughs, the brain largely remains a mystery, and the team from Case Western Reserve University have added to it with their latest paper on a self-propagating ‘wireless’ communication they encountered that can jump across different sections of the brain.
While we’re asleep, the cortex and hippocampus in the brain send out mysterious neural ‘waves’. Scientists have previously observed a low-level, slow periodic activity in the brains of decapitated mice by studying slices of their hippocampuses.
“We’ve known about these waves for a long time, but no one knows their exact function and no one believed they could spontaneously propagate,”says neural and biomedical engineer Dominique Durand from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
This slow periodic activity can generate electric fields which ‘switch on’ neighboring cells briefly, allowing for chemical-free communication across gaps in the brain. The team managed to simulate communication across completely severed brain tissue while the separate pieces remained in close proximity.
“It was a jaw-dropping moment for us and for every scientist we told about this so far.”
The review committee at The Journal of Physiology required the researchers to replicate their results again before they would consider publishing. The researchers were happy to oblige and their paper was subsequently published in the October issue.
When many neurons fire they create a weak electric field, which we can observe on an electroencephalogram (EEG); think of a Mexican wave that keeps going despite breaks in the crowd.
The team has yet to decipher how exactly the discovery works, or what its applications may be.