Neurons Behaving Like Social Networks

The way our brains communicate within themselves and the way we communicate between ourselves seem to be increasingly similar. In a recent report, An Embedded Subnetwork of Highly Active Neurons in the Neocortex researchers from Carnegie Mellon University observed that in a part of the brain called the neocortex neurons show the same pattern of behaviour as those displayed in social networks.

Neurons are the brain’s transmitters of information. They transfer signals either electrically or chemically. However in the seems that in the subnetwork of this particular part of the brain some neurons are more active than others.

Alison Barth is the Associate Professor on the faculty of the Department of Biological Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU.) To assess the firing of individual neurons she invented the fosGFP detection method which was used in a transgenic mouse. This type of functionality allows the observer to determine the how much a given cell is stimulated without damaging the cell itself.

In an email that Professor Barth sent to us she wants to make it clear that she, “had no intention of studying what neurons do when we’re on Facebook, or how Facebook is like the brain.  But the analogy to differentially interconnected networks (such as social networking sites, like Facebook) that was quoted in the CMU press release is quite reasonable and provocative with respect to our work.”

In that news release Professor Barth is quoted as saying, “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.”

According to Professor Barth some questions that now need to be looked at are, “Why are some neurons more active?  How do they become this way?  What drives them to be interconnected to each other?  It’s quite plausible that social networks will help stimulate new hypotheses to understand the organization and behavior of micronetworks, like those that exist in the brain.”

In a previous article HTM: New Algorithms And A New Way Of Programming we discussed the work that Jeff Hawkins was doing on Hierarchical Temporal Memory in which he is using the physical structure of the surface layer of the neocortex to determine how the brain efficiently codes information into memory in the most energetically economic way.

The algorithms that he is developing are never going to be an exact copy of the brain but it is possible to get a model for coding and decoding information that is a very close approximation of how the brain works and thus benefit ourselves accordingly.

In the Victorian age the workings of the mind were compared to the leading technology of the time which was steam. “Letting some steam off” was an expression that entered the language amongst others that reflected this kind of thinking. Latterly in the computer age there has been a tendency to model the brain as something akin to a computer and associated paradigms have emerged around that idea.

But as we learn more and more about how the brain really works we can see that what actually goes on in our heads and what goes on in the world are inextricably intertwined. The steam age and the computer age as marvellous as they were may only be very crude approximations of the technical sophistication of our own brains.

With each new discovery in the field of neuroscience it becomes increasingly more possible to use this information and design and engineer systems based on the systems that go on inside our skull that work very well for us.

As we discover and observe phenomena like information transmitted through social networks working in a very similar way to the way neurons move signals through our brains there is every reason to suppose that future discoveries may reveal more surprising connections between what goes on inside inside our brains and what happens outside in the world.

If the most fundamental network of signal transmitters we have acts like one of the largest social networks that we have created (leaving aside how it is managed) then it is reasonable to expect that there are going to be plenty more lessons to be discovered and learned over the coming years.


One thought on “Neurons Behaving Like Social Networks

  1. The parallels between “facebook” and the brain are fascinating, but actually no surprise: complex networks like online social networks, transportation networks, biological networks etc. share many characteristics. It’s got to do with the topology created as networks naturally evolve, and is underpinned by pretty basic and intuitive maths. It’s a pretty goddam fascinating field, and still a very young field. There’s a great book by Duncan Watts on the subject of complex networks called “6 Degrees- the Science of a Connected Age”. Watts is one of the pioneers of the new model of complex networks.


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