Photo Credit: open clipart vectors CCO via pixabay

Given that scientists have been studying the human body for thousands of years, one would think that they have uncovered all there is to know. It turns out that is not the case. The latest surprising news comes from a team of researchers from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), who have discovered that our brains might be ten times more active and possess 100 times more computing power than previously believed.

As you may be aware, the nerve cells, or neurons, in our brains comprise three main parts — the cell bodies, or somas, branch-like structures called dendrites, and long slender projections called axons. Previously, scientists had believed that only the soma was actively involved in generating electric pulses or “spikes” which help create and store memories. They believed that dendrites merely transmitted the impulses from other neurons to the soma, while axons carried the impulses away from the soma. Turns out that is not the case, at least as far as dendrites are concerned.

Image Credit: US Federal (public domain) CC 3.0 via Wikipedia Commons

In the UCLA experiment, the researchers observed the brain activity in live rats as they moved in a maze by using electrodes to measure the "spikes' in the posterior parietal cortex — the part of the brain that coordinates body movements. To the team’s astonishment, the dendrites generated ten times more electrical impulses than the somas when the rats were active, and five times as much when the rodents were asleep!

UCLA neurophysicist Mayank Mehta says, “Knowing they (dendrites) are much more active than the soma fundamentally changes the nature of our understanding of how the brain computes information.” He speculates that since dendrites are nearly 100 times larger in volume than somas, it's possible that our brains have 100 times more capacity to compute information than previously believed.

UCLA scientists discovered that dendrites (shown here in green) are not just passive conduits for electrical currents between neurons (Credit: Shelley Halpain/UC San Diego via newsroom.ucla. edu)

The research also provides further insight into how our brain gains knowledge and makes memories. Until now, scientists had assumed that learning only occurs when two somas are active at the same time, but the study, published in the March 9 issue of journal Science, proves that the process may be more fluid. "Our findings indicate that learning may take place when the input neuron is active at the same time that a dendrite is active — and it could be that different parts of dendrites will be active at different times, which would suggest a lot more flexibility in how learning can occur within a single neuron," said Jason Moore, a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA and the first author of the study.

The researchers believe the findings have numerous implications for the future of artificial intelligence and medicine. According to Mehta, “It may pave the way for understanding and treating neurological disorders, and for developing brain-like computers.” More importantly, it means that we are all much smarter than we think. The next time you are stuck on an assignment, be sure to exert your brain a little more — it may just surprise you!