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Memory Leans More on the Brain’s Electric Field Than on Neurons

MIT researchers compare the electric field to an orchestra conducting the neurons as players

The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT offers an interesting new model of how memories are processed in the brain. Using two macaques playing a game while their brain activities were recorded, the researchers suggest the orchestra as a model. The neurons are the players and the electric field is the conductor:

As the brain strives to hold information in mind, such as the list of groceries we need to buy on the way home, a new study suggests that the most consistent and reliable representation of that information is not the electrical activity of the individual neurons involved but an overall electric field they collectively produce.

Indeed, whenever neuroscientists have looked at how brains represent information in working memory, they’ve found that from one trial to the next, even when repeating the same task, the participation and activity of individual cells varies (a phenomenon called “representational drift”). In a new study in NeuroImage, scientists at The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT and the University of London found that regardless of which specific neurons were involved, the overall electric field that was generated, provided a stable and consistent signal of the information the animals were tasked to remember.

In a sense, once established, the field imposes itself on the neurons like the conductor of an orchestra in which each neuron is a single musician, said Dimitris Pinotsis, the study’s lead and corresponding author. Even if the musicians change, the conductor still coordinates whomever is in the chairs to produce the same result.

“This ensures that the brain can still function even if some neurons die,” said Pinotsis, an associate professor at University of London and a research affiliate in The Picower Institute at MIT. “The field ensures the same output of the ensemble of neurons is achieved even after individual parts change. The brain does not need individual neurons, just the conductor, the electric field, to be the same.”

News, “Neurons are fickle. Electric fields are more reliable for information.” at The Picower Institute (March 14, 2022)

The researchers next plan to study whether the electrical field created in the brain changes the way the neurons act. Pinotsis says. “To make the analogy with the orchestra, we are now using this work to ask whether a conductor’s style changes the way an individual member of an orchestra plays her instrument.”

If the researchers’ model is verified in further research, memories are not “located” in any particular cells in the brain but in an electrical field generally. It will be interesting to see how this model meshes with a quantum approach to the brain.

The paper is open access.

More from the Picower Institute on how some memories are formed:


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Memory Leans More on the Brain’s Electric Field Than on Neurons