Scientists have discovered that the brain’s neocortex contains a complex network of highly active neurons called ‘Facebook’ neurons.
These networks have a small population of highly active members who give and receive more information than the majority of other members.
Alison Barth, associate professor of biological sciences at Carnegie Mellon and a member of the Centre for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC) believes that the find could shed light on the neocortex, which is thought to be the brain's centre of higher learning.
A mouse model links green fluorescent protein (GFP) with the activity-dependent gene fos, causing the neuron to light up when it is activated.
The researchers took recordings from both fos-labeled and unlabeled neurons and found that the most active neurons were expressing the fos gene.
After isolating the active neurons, the researchers to begin to understand the mechanisms underlying the increased activity.
Barth and colleagues were able to see that the fos-expressing neurons were not more active because they were intrinsically more excitable; in fact, the neurons seemed to be calmer or more suppressed than their neighboring, inactive neurons.
Barth concluded the similarity to a social network. There is a small, but significant, population of neurons that are more connected than other neurons.
"It's like Facebook. Most of your friends don't post much - if at all. But, there is a small percentage of your friends on Facebook who update their status and page often. Those people are more likely to be connected to more friends, so while they're sharing more information, they're also receiving more information from their expanded network, which includes other more active participants," Barth said.
The Carnegie Mellon researchers plan to study these neurons to see if these neurons play a role in learning.
The study has been published in the journal Neuron.