A Single Neuron Can Alter the Brain
Christina Sarich, Staff Writer
“I think every single person perceives things differently. We are all singular.” ~ Julia Leigh
If you’ve ever dropped a tiny pebble into a glass-smooth lake, you know that this single change can reverberate out from the middle of the body of water to the furthest reaches close to shore. It turns out that a single neuron can change a person’s brain waves just like that pebble. Recent research from Yang Dan at the University of California, Berkeley, has uncovered new information about just how powerful an individual neuron is in changing our brain chemistry.
Even though there are thousands of neural connections happening in our brains at any one moment in time, a veritable orchestra of cross-talk and communication, an individual brain cell has much more clout than was previously assumed. We know that the chaotic ways in which the brain communicates to itself and the rest of the body can lead to some pretty serious health issues – starting with insomnia and even sleepwalking, and, later on in life, dementia and other illnesses if left untreated. But we can make changes to these deleterious patterns starting with just one neuron.
As Yang Dan tells us, “A single neuron has more weight than we used to think.” Usually, we look at brain waves – the collection of billions of cells talking to one another through electrical impulses across the brain at large. These patterns can help to control everything from our respiratory rates, to how we respond to a traffic accident, or how we express pleasant surprise when someone buys our coffee in line ahead of us.
This collection of brain wave chatter forms a sine wave, called a brainwave. There are different types of waves, depending on the prevalent type of communication happening between the billions of neurons. For example, large, slow brain waves are associated with deep sleep. During REM or rapid eye movement sleep, another type of wave forms, since there is an overarching change in the flavor of communication happening in the brain at that time, and the communication is less synchronized. There are smaller and more frequent oscillations in the sine waves. When we are awake, the pattern gets even more chaotic, with the neurons chattering like rambunctious school children, broadcasting an uncoordinated, rapid-fire cacophony of electrical signals.
Dan and his colleagues came to their findings by studying how large-scale brain wave patterns influenced a connection between two singular neurons, knowing that repetitive patterns create groove-like electrical pathways that could get stronger over time. When used less often, like grass growing over a walking path, the neuronal pathways become less prominent. Dan and his scientific peers wondered if the overall pattern of brain activity altered the ability of nerve cells to broadcast with a louder decibel, or, so to speak, greater strength.
Using anesthetized rats to produce experiment results, they found that tickling just one neuron in the brain caused a whole set of neurons to fire, even when the surrounding neurons were left undisturbed.
Dan explains the results of his study, “Every neuron makes connections to roughly 1000 other neurons, but most of those are quite weak . . .” What makes this single neuron stimulation firing other areas of the brain interesting is that a target cell won’t normally respond unless quite a few of the neurons that connect to it are stimulated. It usually takes a group effort on the part of cells to get an entire brain wave going. What is odd is that single neurons were found to change the activity of the entire brain, though.
Dan and his team still don’t understand exactly how one cell could exert so much influence over the rest of the brain. They had to repeatedly stimulate a cell to cause a pattern to switch, so it is possible that they were emulating the effect of many cells firing concurrently, although a neuron does not normally fire that way. It is still a question as to whether the activity of the single neuron could change the entire brain pattern under more normal circumstances.
These findings do, however, alter the way scientists understand how patterns are established in the brain. They already know that certain brain structures, like the brain stem and hypothalamus, help to set the tone of the conversations happening in the whole brain, but it turns out that altering just small parts of the brain may have a profound effect on what the brain ‘says’ to us overall. These changes can originate in all areas of the brain, even the corpus callosum, the thin layer between the hemispheres.
We already know that sound, meditation, or even sitting by ocean waves can alter our brain wave patterns so that we exist in a more peaceful state, but it turns out that the change may start from a smaller seed of thought, a single cell firing, than was tacit before this type of study.
About the Author
Christina Sarich is a musician, yogi, humanitarian and freelance writer who channels many hours of studying Lao Tzu, Paramahansa Yogananda, Rob Brezny, Miles Davis, and Tom Robbins into interesting tidbits to help you Wake up Your Sleepy Little Head, and See the Big Picture. Her blog is Yoga for the New World. Her latest book is Pharma Sutra: Healing the Body And Mind Through the Art of Yoga.
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