From the moment we are born, and even before that, we interact with the world through movement. We move our lips to smile or to talk. We extend our hand to touch. We move our eyes to see. We wiggle, we walk, we gesture, we dance. How does our brain remember this wide range of motions? How does it learn new ones? How does it make the calculations necessary for us to grab a glass of water, without dropping it, squashing it, or missing it?
Technion Professor Jackie Schiller from the Ruth and Bruce Rappaport Faculty of Medicine and her team examined the brain at a single-neuron level to shed light on this mystery. They found that computation happens not just in the interaction between neurons (nerve cells), but within each individual neuron. Each of these cells, it turns out, is not a simple switch, but a complicated calculating machine. This discovery, published recently in the Science magazine, promises changes not only to our understanding of how the brain works, but better understanding of conditions ranging from Parkinson’s disease to autism.
Movement is controlled by the primary motor cortex of the brain. In this area, researchers are able to pinpoint exactly which neuron(s) fire at any given moment to produce the movement we see. Prof. Schiller’s team was the first to get even closer, examining the activity not of the whole neuron as a single unit, but of its parts.
A Complex Symphony
Every neuron has branched extensions called dendrites. These dendrites are in close contact with the terminals (called axons) of other nerve cells, allowing the communication between them. A signal travels from the dendrites to the cell’s body, and then transferred onwards through the axon. The number and structure of dendrites varies greatly between nerve cells, like the crown of one tree differs from the crown of another. For the first time, Prof. Schiller’s team showed that the neuron is compartmentalized, and that its branches perform calculations independently.
“We used to think of each neuron as a sort of whistle, which either toots, or doesn’t,” Prof. Schiller explains. “Instead, we are looking at a piano. Its keys can be struck simultaneously, or in sequence, producing an infinity of different tunes.” This complex symphony playing in our brains is what enables us to learn and perform an infinity of different, complex and precise movements.
StepUp is based on a neural network model of how our brains learn and remember. This useful research shows how neurons become decision-makers, giving us the power to use our small set of muscles for an unlimited set of purposeful movements. StepUp uses whole-body coordination to focus our attention and coordinated movement to focus on our attention on the learning of basic skills (watching, listening and talking, for reading, math and handwriting).
Reposted from Technion Israel Institute of Technology
Note by Nancy W Rowe M.S., CCC/A