Scientists have generally believed that dendrites meekly sent currents they received from the cell's synapse (the junction between two neurons) to the soma, which in turn generated an electrical impulse. Those short electrical bursts, known as somatic spikes, were thought to be at the heart of neural computation and learning. But the new study demonstrated that dendrites generate their own spikes 10 times more often than the somas.
The researchers also found that dendrites generate large fluctuations in voltage in addition to the spikes; the spikes are binary, all-or-nothing events. The somas generated only all-or-nothing spikes, much like digital computers do. In addition to producing similar spikes, the dendrites also generated large, slowly varying voltages that were even bigger than the spikes, which suggests that the dendrites execute analog computation.
"We found that dendrites are hybrids that do both analog and digital computations, which are therefore fundamentally different from purely digital computers, but somewhat similar to quantum computers that are analog," said Mehta, a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy, of neurology and of neurobiology. "A fundamental belief in neuroscience has been that neurons are digital devices. They either generate a spike or not. These results show that the dendrites do not behave purely like a digital device. Dendrites do generate digital, all-or-none spikes, but they also show large analog fluctuations that are not all or none. This is a major departure from what neuroscientists have believed for about 60 years."
Looking at the soma to understand how the brain works has provided a framework for numerous medical and scientific questions -- from diagnosing and treating diseases to how to build computers. But, Mehta said, that framework was based on the understanding that the cell body makes the decisions, and that the process is digital.
"What we found indicates that such decisions are made in the dendrites far more often than in the cell body, and that such computations are not just digital, but also analog," Mehta said. "Due to technological difficulties, research in brain function has largely focused on the cell body. But we have discovered the secret lives of neurons, especially in the extensive neuronal branches. Our results substantially change our understanding of how neurons compute.