Our conception of how our brain does what it does has just been turned upside down, inside out and from the middle to each end — if the following paper holds up [ Science vol. 355 pp. 1281 eaaj1497 1 –> 10 ’17 ] The authors claim to be able to measure electrical activity in dendrites in a living, behaving animal for days at a time. Dendrites are about the size of the smallest electrodes we have, so impaling them destroys them. The technical details of what they did are crucial, as much of what they report may be artifact due to injury produced by the way they acquired their data.
First a picture of a pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyramidal_cell — the cell body is only 20 microns in diameter (the giant pyramidal neurons giving rise to the corticospinal tract are much larger with diameters of 100 microns). Look at the picture in the article. If the cell body is (soma) 20 microns the dendrites arising from it (particularly the apical dendrite) are at most 5 microns thick.
Here’s what they did. A tetrode is a bundle of 4 very fine electrodes. Bundle diameter is only 30 – 40 microns with a 5 micron gap between the tips. This allows an intact dendrite to be caught in the gap. The authors note that chronically implanted tetrodes produce an immune response, in which glial cells proliferate and wall off the tetrode, shielding it from the extracellular medium by forming a high impedance sheath. This allows the tetrode to measure the electrical activity of a dendrite caught between the 4 tips (and hopefully little else).
How physiologic is this activity? Remember that epilepsy developing after head trauma is thought to due to abnormal electrical activity due to glial scars, and a glial scar is exactly what is found around the tetrode. So a lot more work needs to be done replicating this, and studying similar events in neuronal culture (without glia present).
Well those are the caveats. What did they find? The work involved 9 rats and 22 individually adjustable tetrodes. They found that spikes in the dendrites were quite different than the spikes found by a tetrode next to the pyramidal cell body. The dendritic spikes were larger (570 -2,100 microVolts) vs. 80 microVolts recorded extracellularly for spikes arising at the soma. Of course when the soma is impaled by an electrode you get a much larger spike.
More importantly, the dendritic spike rates were 5 times greater than the somatic spike rates during slow wave sleep and 10 times greater during exploration when awake. The authors call these dendritic action potentials (DAPs). Their amplitude was always positive.
They were also able to measure how the membrane potential of the dendrite fluctuated. The membrane potential fluctuations were always larger than the dendritic spikes themselves (by 7 fold). The size of the flucuations correlated with DAP magnitude and rate.
So all the neuronal spikes and axonal action potentials we’ve been measuring over the years (because it was all we could measure), may irrelevant to what the brain is really doing. Maybe the real computation is occuring within dendrites.
Now we know we can put an electrode in the brain out side of any neuron and record something called a local field potential — which is held to be a weighted sum of transmembrane currents due to synaptic and dendritic activity and arises within 250 microns of the electrode (and probably closer than that).
So fluctuating potentials are out there in the substance of the brain, outside any neuronal structure. Is it possible that the changes in membrane potential in dendrites are felt by other dendrites and if so is this where the brain’s computations are really taking place? Could synapses be irrelevant to this picture, and each pyramidal neuron not be a transistor but a complex analog CPU? Heady stuff. It certainly means goodbye to the McCullouch Pitts model — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_neuron.