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Question Your World: How Does the Brain Really Work?

The brain has a pretty awesome resume. Everything from the Magna Carta to Snuggies are byproducts of the brain's pretty impressive range of applications. So, how does the brain really work? Learn more in this week’s Question Your World Radio Report from the Science Museum of Virginia.

Consider the vastness of output from the brain: the wheel, agriculture, the letterpress, digital technology, and Leprechaun 4: Leprechaun In Space. How in the world could we begin to start to understand the vast types of applications the brain is capable of? For centuries humanity has been fascinated by that thing in our heads that makes everything happen, so when we get brain-related news from the medical field we have to get pretty worked up. In the past few decades we've started to truly understand the awesome processes and functions of the brain, from the big and obvious to the little and hidden features.

In a recent study scientists came across a pretty remarkable feature that's challenging the pre-existing understanding of how the brain actually works. In your brain there are billions of neurons. These brain cells have an interesting physical shape. Neurons have arm like features that extend out from the main cell body called Dendrites. Up till now dendrites were considered to act as a means of connecting and information transportation for neurons. However, in this recent study they observed that the dendrites themselves are doing data processing as information travels through them to get to the neuron. This is a pretty remarkable discovery because it means an already small part of our brain has an even smaller part that functions as a computational component in our nervous system! A brain full of microscopic super computers!

This redefines our understanding of dendrites and ultimately of how information can be processed. One cool thing about the science field is that questions lead to answers and those answers just lead to more questions, job security at its best! So, now that we have confirmation of this amazing computational ability in these microscopic organic strands we can start asking new questions. How does the dendrite fully function? Is there anything smaller than a dendrite that processes information? Can this inspire future micro-technology? Is the awareness of this another part of the body that we can consider for technological merging? Will dendrites ever end up as a plot premise to another Leprechaun movie? So many questions…stay tuned as research continues!

Article by Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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