Do Humans Have a “Halle Berry Brain Cell”?
World travelers can instantly identify the architectural sails of the Sydney Opera House, while movie aficionados can immediately I.D. Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry beneath her Catwoman costume or even in an artist’s caricature. But how does the human brain instantly translate varied and abstract visual images into a single and consistently recognizable concept?
Now a research team of neuroscientists from the California Institute of Technology and UCLA has found that a single neuron can recognize people, landmarks, and objects–even letter strings of names (“H-A-L-L-E-B-E-R-R-Y”). The findings, reported in the current issue of the journal Nature, suggest that a consistent, sparse, and explicit code may play a role in transforming complex visual representations into long-term and more abstract memories.
“This new understanding of individual neurons as ‘thinking cells’ is an important step toward cracking the brain’s cognition code,” says co-senior investigator Itzhak Fried, a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, also at UCLA. “As our understanding grows, we one day may be able to build cognitive prostheses to replace functions lost due to brain injury or disease, perhaps even for memory.”
“Our findings fly in the face of conventional thinking about how brain cells function,” adds Christof Koch, the Lois and Victor Troendle Professor of Cognitive and Behavioral Biology and professor of computation and neural systems at Caltech, and the other co-senior investigator. “Conventional wisdom views individual brain cells as simple switches or relays. In fact, we are finding that neurons are able to function more like a sophisticated computer.”
No wonder Catwoman got on people’s nerves.