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Research suggests brain processes feel like both a painting and a symphony

What happens when we smell a rose? How does our brain process the essence of its perfume? Is it like a painting – a snapshot of flickering cell activity – captured at a given moment? Or like a symphony, an evolving set of different cells working together to capture the scent? New research suggests that our brain does both.

“These findings reveal a fundamental principle of the nervous system, flexibility in the types of calculations the brain performs to represent aspects of the sensory world,” said Krishnan Padmanabhan, Ph.D., associate professor of neuroscience and lead author of the paper. ‘study. recently published in Cell reports. “Our work provides scientists with new tools to quantify and interpret brain activity patterns.”

The researchers developed a model to simulate the workings of the early olfactory system – the network the brain relies on to smell. Using computer simulations, they discovered that a specific set of connections, called centrifugal fibers, which carry impulses from other parts of the central nervous system to the early sensory regions of the brain, played a key role. These centrifugal fibers act as a switch, toggling between different strategies to effectively represent odors. When the centrifugal fibers were in a state, the cells of the piriform cortex – where the perception of an odor is formed – relied on the pattern of activity at a given time. When centrifugal fibers were in the other state, cells in the piriform cortex improved both the accuracy and speed with which the cells detected and classified odor based on patterns of brain activity over time. .

These processes suggest that the brain has multiple responses to the representation of an odor. In one strategy, the brain uses a snapshot, such as a painting or photograph, at a given time to capture essential characteristics of smell. In the other strategy, the brain follows the evolution of patterns. It is suitable for cells that turn on and off and when – like a symphony.

The mathematical models developed by the researchers highlight the essential characteristic of the nervous system – not only the diversity in terms of the components that make up the brain, but also the way in which these components work together to help the brain discover the world of smell. “These mathematical models reveal critical aspects of how the olfactory system works in the brain and could help build brain-inspired artificial computing systems,” Padmanabhan said. “Brain circuit-inspired computational approaches like this have the potential to improve the safety of self-driving cars or help computer vision algorithms more accurately identify and classify objects in an image.”

Other authors include Zhen Chen of the University of Rochester. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Cystinosis Research Foundation and the University of Rochester’s Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience Pilot Program.

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Material provided by University of Rochester Medical Center. Original written by Kelsie Smith Hayduk. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.