Nav: Home

How cells divide tasks and conquer work

June 07, 2017

LA JOLLA--(June 7, 2017) Despite advances in neuroscience, the brain is still very much a black box--no one even knows how many different types of neurons exist. Now, a scientist from the Salk Institute has used a mathematical framework to better understand how different cell types divide work among themselves.

The theory, which is described in the journal Neuron on June 7, 2017, could help reveal how cell types achieve greater efficiency and reliability or how disease results when the division of labor is not as effective.

"Understanding how different cell types work together is a big unknown in biology," says Tatyana Sharpee, an associate professor in Salk's Computational Neurobiology Laboratory and holder of the Helen McLoraine Developmental Chair. "For example, in the brain we do not know yet the number of different cell types, with ongoing debates on what even constitutes a cell type. Having a theoretical framework such as this one can focus experimental efforts for understanding biological complexity."

In the 1950s, information theory was developed to study how to send messages in the most cost-effective manner while minimizing errors. This theory is also relevant for how neurons in the brain communicate with each other. Sharpee, who uses information theory to discern fundamental laws governing biological complexity, says it can help predict how many different cell types to expect in a system and how these cell types should work together.

Sharpee and colleagues published this idea in 2015 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explaining why neurons in the salamander retina that are sensitive to dimming lights split into two sub-types, whereas comparable neurons sensitive to increases in light do not. It turns out that neurons sensitive to light dimming are more reliable than neurons sensitive to light increases. The increased reliability of dark-sensitive neurons means they can represent signals of different strengths separately whereas neurons sensitive to light increases have to work together, in effect averaging their responses.

This theory has an analogy in real life, Sharpee explains: "When trainees are new, managers often assign the same task to several people. If they get the same or very similar answers, a manager can have more confidence in the work. Once trainees are proficient, managers can trust them enough to give each more specialized tasks."

In this analogy, less reliable neurons are like trainees, whose answers need to be averaged because they might all be slightly off. More reliable neurons are the proficient workers, who can be given different tasks because each one's accuracy can be trusted.

In the new paper, Sharpee further describes how these arguments can be generalized to help us understand how different proteins (such as ion channels that help us produce signals in the brain in the first place) divide the input ranges to achieve greater overall efficiency for the organism. Based on information theory, the arguments can also be applied outside of neuroscience.

"The theory that we tested in the retina can be relevant for understanding the complexity of many other systems, because if you have noisy input-output elements it's better to average their output. And if the elements are slightly more capable they can be more specific and divide up the dynamic range," adds Sharpee. She is working with a number of groups to test and broaden the range of applications, such as inflammation, mood disorders, metabolism and cancer.
-end-
The work was funded by the National Science Foundation.

About the Salk Institute for Biological Studies:

Every cure has a starting point. The Salk Institute embodies Jonas Salk's mission to dare to make dreams into reality. Its internationally renowned and award-winning scientists explore the very foundations of life, seeking new understandings in neuroscience, genetics, immunology, plant biology and more. The Institute is an independent nonprofit organization and architectural landmark: small by choice, intimate by nature and fearless in the face of any challenge. Be it cancer or Alzheimer's, aging or diabetes, Salk is where cures begin. Learn more at: salk.edu.

Salk Institute

Related Neurons Articles:

A molecule that directs neurons
A research team coordinated by the University of Trento studied a mass of brain cells, the habenula, linked to disorders like autism, schizophrenia and depression.
Shaping the social networks of neurons
Identification of a protein complex that attracts or repels nerve cells during development.
With these neurons, extinguishing fear is its own reward
The same neurons responsible for encoding reward also form new memories to suppress fearful ones, according to new research by scientists at The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT.
How do we get so many different types of neurons in our brain?
SMU (Southern Methodist University) researchers have discovered another layer of complexity in gene expression, which could help explain how we're able to have so many billions of neurons in our brain.
These neurons affect how much you do, or don't, want to eat
University of Arizona researchers have identified a network of neurons that coordinate with other brain regions to influence eating behaviors.
Mood neurons mature during adolescence
Researchers have discovered a mysterious group of neurons in the amygdala -- a key center for emotional processing in the brain -- that stay in an immature, prenatal developmental state throughout childhood.
Connecting neurons in the brain
Leuven researchers uncover new mechanisms of brain development that determine when, where and how strongly distinct brain cells interconnect.
The salt-craving neurons
Pass the potato chips, please! New research discovers neural circuits that regulate craving and satiation for salty tastes.
When neurons are out of shape, antidepressants may not work
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed medication for major depressive disorder (MDD), yet scientists still do not understand why the treatment does not work in nearly thirty percent of patients with MDD.
Losing neurons can sometimes not be that bad
Current thinking about Alzheimer's disease is that neuronal cell death in the brain is to blame for the cognitive havoc caused by the disease.
More Neurons News and Neurons Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Clint Smith
The killing of George Floyd by a police officer has sparked massive protests nationwide. This hour, writer and scholar Clint Smith reflects on this moment, through conversation, letters, and poetry.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.