How brain cells persuade other cells to do ‘the wave’

November 19, 2014

Stadium crowd performing “the wave” at the Confederations Cup 2005 in Frankfurt (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Neuroscientists have discovered mechanisms that enable certain brain cells to persuade others to create “the wave” (a wave of standing spectators that travels through a crowd*), which may help understand more about neurocognitive disorders such as dementia, the researchers say.

Inhibitory neurons** can persuade networks of other neurons to imitate their vibrations, setting off global synchronous oscillations in the brain. The neuroscientists, at Imperial College London and the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, believe these collective synchronous oscillations play a key role in cognitive function.

This study was published (open access) Tuesday (Nov. 18) in the journal Nature Communications.

Claudia Clopath, co-author from the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London, says disruptions to the wave may contribute to neurocognitive disorders such as dementia. “Our hope is that ultimately our research will lead to new insights into these disorders and how they can be treated.”

The researchers developed a mathematical model showing the two mechanisms that inhibitory neurons need to convince others to join them in their rhythmical vibrations. The first is the mechanism that enables the inhibitory neurons to vibrate on their own, known as sub-threshold resonance.

The second mechanism is a nanoscopic hole known as a gap-junction. There are many of these on the surface of the inhibitory neuron and they allow neurons to communicate directly with one another, enabling inhibitory neurons to set off a collective vibration.

The fact that inhibitory neurons are able to determine how and when whole networks of neurons will vibrate suggests that they are much more important in brain function than scientists had previously thought, say the researchers.

The next step will be research on inhibitory neurons to fully understand why vibrations are important for cognitive functions. The neuroscientists believe that there may ultimately be a way to manipulate inhibitory neurons to improve how they vibrate, which might one day lead to better treatments for people with neurocognitive diseases.

* Known as the “Mexican wave” outside North America

* Neurons belong to one of two groups: inhibitory (inhibit other neurons from firing) or excitatory (stimulate firing).