According to researchers, a molecule exists in the brain capable of functioning as a switch that can control the properties of neurons depending on activity in the neural network.

In a study published in the journal Science, researchers suggest that it's possible to "tune" hardware in the brain, offering implications beyond traditional neuroscience. Computers are commonly used to describe the brain, with microprocessors and logic boards representing neurons and neural circuits, but the study has just shown that the comparison is no longer accurate because the brain's "hardware" features programmable mechanisms not present in computers.

Oscar Marin and colleagues discovered that certain neurons within the cerebral cortex are capable of adapting properties based on changes in activities in the neural network. However, they later on realized that what they thought were two different classes of fast-spiking interneurons were actually just one with the ability to switch between two differing ground states. The researchers were also able to identify the "switch" that made the switching possible: a protein that influences gene expression called Er81.

Fast-spiking interneurons belong to a general class of neurons primarily tasked with regulating activity in principal cerebral cortex cells called pyramidal cells. According to the researchers, the results of their study explain underlying mechanisms responsible for dynamically regulating the roles interneurons play. Their findings also supports the idea that activity affects the properties of neurons, which can be adapted depending on external and internal influences for encoding information.

"Our study demonstrates the tremendous plasticity of the brain, and how this relates to fundamental processes," said Marin.

The researchers pointed out that understanding how dynamic brain mechanisms lead to certain functions by developing and continuously remodeling neural circuits and the limitations aging and disease brings to these mechanisms can have important implications for developing new treatments for neurological disorders and facilitating education policies.

The study received funding support from the EMBO postdoctoral fellowship, the Wellcome Trust, the European Research Council and the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation. Other researchers include: Isabel del Pino, Lynette Lim, Giorgia Bartolini, Gabriele Ciceri and Nathalie Dehorter. They are affiliated with the MRC Centre for Developmental Neurobiology at King's College London and the Instituto de Neurosciences at Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas and Universidad Miguel Hernández.

Photo: Allan Ajifo | Flickr

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