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October 10, 2009

BehindTheMedspeak: The Homer Simpson Neuron

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No, it's not what you think, scientists haven't discovered that Homer Simpson has just one neuron.

Rather, among the findings of a series of recently reported neurological and brain imaging studies was that"... certain neurons flashed only when the patient was shown, or thought of, a specific concept, such as the Simpsons."

Robert Lee Hotz's "Science Journal" feature in yesterday's Wall Street Journal has details; excerpts follow.

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Researchers have discovered that in the vast neural network of the brain, some cells are, to use a technical term, celebrity groupies.

Probing deep into human brains, a team of scientists discovered a neuron roused only by Ronald Reagan, another cell smitten by the actress Halle Berry and a third devoted solely to Mother Teresa. Testing other single human neurons, they located a brain cell that would rather watch an episode of "The Simpsons" than Madonna.

In their most recent work this year, the research team reported that a single human neuron could recognize a personality through pictures, text or the sound of a name -- no matter how that person was presented. In tests, one brain cell reacted only to Oprah Winfrey; another just to Luke Skywalker; a third singled out Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona.

In some ways, each neuron does act as if it has a mind of its own. Some fire only when they perceive a straight line; others just when they detect a right angle. New neurons form every day. No one knows how the cells can encode a complex thought or how so many neurons can make a mind.

In five provocative experiments since 2005, the researchers used pictures of famous faces and places to screen neurons in brain areas that gather information from all our senses about a person or place we know and blend them into a long-term memory.

To start, Dr. Fried and his colleagues showed eight epilepsy patients 80 images of celebrities, animals, common objects and landmarks while recording the electrical activity of neurons wired to electrodes. They flashed each image for a second, shuffled the sequence into random order and then repeated it. They did that six times.

"You would present hundreds of stimuli -- faces or celebrities or famous landmarks -- and the neuron would respond to only one or two," Dr. Fried says. "The incredible specificity was striking."

In the magazine rack of the mind, some cover girls have a neuron all their own. Testing one patient, the researchers found a neuron that reacted instantly when shown almost any picture of Jennifer Aniston. This cell ignored other celebrities. It gave the cold shoulder to pictures of the actress with her former husband Brad Pitt. "The cells seemed to respond to the idea of Jennifer Aniston," says Dr. Koch.

Testing a second patient, the researchers found a neuron that responded only to Halle Berry. The cell's electrical activity jumped no matter how the actress was posed or how she was dressed. Again, this neuron showed no interest in other celebrities or to any other images of common objects or places.

During a follow-up study at UCLA last year, the researchers showed 13 new volunteers wired to neural electrodes a set of 48 short video segments. In part, they wanted to see if neurons attuned any differently to moving pictures and changing scenery.

In fact, some cells did respond strongly to one video clip but not to others. In one patient, the researchers found a neuron that acted up only to The Simpsons cartoon series. "The neuron would spring to life when you showed the video of The Simpsons," says Dr. Fried.

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Video link here.


October 10, 2009 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Comments

Some fire only when they perceive a straight line; others just when they detect a right angle. THAT is amazing!!!
I truly think most of mine fire from being rejected to long!
Quick question, If a neuron yells "FIRE" in a crowed hemisphere.......?

Posted by: Joe Peach | Oct 10, 2009 6:03:21 PM

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