Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

'Butterfly effect' in the brain makes the brain intrinsically unreliable

Date:
July 1, 2010
Source:
University College London
Summary:
Next time your brain plays tricks on you, you have an excuse: according to new research, the brain is intrinsically unreliable.

Researchers introduced a small perturbation into the brain, the neural equivalent of butterfly wings, and ask what would happen to the activity in the circuit. Would the perturbation grow and have a knock-on effect, thus affecting the rest of the brain, or immediately die out?
Credit: Image courtesy of University College London

Next time your brain plays tricks on you, you have an excuse: according to new research by UCL scientists published June 30 in the journal Nature, the brain is intrinsically unreliable.

This may not seem surprising to most of us, but it has puzzled neuroscientists for decades. Given that the brain is the most powerful computing device known, how can it perform so well even though the behaviour of its circuits is variable?

A long-standing hypothesis is that the brain's circuitry actually is reliable -- and the apparently high variability is because your brain is engaged in many tasks simultaneously, which affect each other.

It is this hypothesis that the researchers at UCL tested directly. The team -- a collaboration between experimentalists at the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research and a theorist, Peter Latham, at the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit -- took inspiration from the celebrated butterfly effect -- from the fact that the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas. Their idea was to introduce a small perturbation into the brain, the neural equivalent of butterfly wings, and ask what would happen to the activity in the circuit. Would the perturbation grow and have a knock-on effect, thus affecting the rest of the brain, or immediately die out?

It turned out to have a huge knock-on effect. The perturbation was a single extra 'spike', or nerve impulse, introduced to a single neuron in the brain of a rat. That single extra spike caused about thirty new extra spikes in nearby neurons in the brain, most of which caused another thirty extra spikes, and so on. This may not seem like much, given that the brain produces millions of spikes every second. However, the researchers estimated that eventually, that one extra spike affected millions of neurons in the brain.

"This result indicates that the variability we see in the brain may actually be due to noise, and represents a fundamental feature of normal brain function," said lead author Dr. Mickey London, of the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research, UCL.

This rapid amplification of spikes means that the brain is extremely 'noisy' -- much, much noisier than computers. Nevertheless, the brain can perform very complicated tasks with enormous speed and accuracy, far faster and more accurately than the most powerful computer ever built (and likely to be built in the foreseeable future). The UCL researchers suggest that for the brain to perform so well in the face of high levels of noise, it must be using a strategy called a rate code. In a rate code, neurons consider the activity of an ensemble of many neurons, and ignore the individual variability, or noise, produced by each of them.

So now we know that the brain is truly noisy, but we still don't know why. The UCL researchers suggest that one possibility is that it's the price the brain pays for high connectivity among neurons (each neuron connects to about 10,000 others, resulting in over 8 million kilometres of wiring in the human brain). Presumably, that high connectivity is at least in part responsible for the brain's computational power. However, as the research shows, the higher the connectivity, the noisier the brain. Therefore, while noise may not be a useful feature, it is at least a by-product of a useful feature.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University College London. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. London et al. Sensitivity to perturbations in vivo implies high noise and suggests rate coding in cortex. Nature, 2010; 466 (7302): 123 DOI: 10.1038/nature09086

Cite This Page:

University College London. "'Butterfly effect' in the brain makes the brain intrinsically unreliable." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 July 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100630132836.htm>.
University College London. (2010, July 1). 'Butterfly effect' in the brain makes the brain intrinsically unreliable. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 20, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100630132836.htm
University College London. "'Butterfly effect' in the brain makes the brain intrinsically unreliable." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100630132836.htm (accessed September 20, 2014).

Share This



More Mind & Brain News

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Could Grief Affect The Immune Systems Of Senior Citizens?

Could Grief Affect The Immune Systems Of Senior Citizens?

Newsy (Sep. 19, 2014) The study found elderly people are much more likely to become susceptible to infection than younger adults going though a similar situation. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Food Addiction Might Be Caused By PTSD

Food Addiction Might Be Caused By PTSD

Newsy (Sep. 18, 2014) New research shows that women who suffer from PTSD are three times more likely to develop a food addiction. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Corporal Punishment on Decline, Debate Renews

Corporal Punishment on Decline, Debate Renews

AP (Sep. 16, 2014) Corporal punishment in the United States is on the decline, but there is renewed debate over its use after Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was charged with child abuse. (Sept. 16) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
FDA Eyes Skin Shocks Used at Mass. School

FDA Eyes Skin Shocks Used at Mass. School

AP (Sep. 15, 2014) The FDA is considering whether to ban devices used by the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Massachusetts, the only place in the country known to use electrical skin shocks as aversive conditioning for aggressive patients. (Sept. 15) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins