Our brains can be compared to computers or telephones

Our cerebellum processes information efficiently

02/07/2020 | 4:22 PM

Telephones and computers use all kinds of tricks to limit necessary storage space. MP3 and JPEG compression for sound and images, respectively, is used to leave out unobservable parts of sound and images. These compression mechanisms use Fourier transformation, which splits signals into several frequency domains. A similar phenomenon can be observed when a prism splits white light into several different colors. Neurophysiologists from the VU Amsterdam, the university of Leipzig, and the university of Strasbourg investigated whether the brain splits information into several frequencies, and thus uses a similar approach as our phones and computers. Their research has been published in eLife.

Granule cells
The cerebellum receives inputs from sensory organs such as the eyes, ears and skin. These signals are transmitted via nerve virtually unchanged. At the level of the granule cells, these signals are integrated. However, these inputs contain different frequencies. Some information is transmitted with a few impulses per second, while other inputs reaches the granule cells with up to a thousand impulses per second. The researchers discovered how a simple and small neuron, like that granule cell, can process this diversity in inputs.

Exact position
The researchers investigated whether granule cells form a uniform group. Using electrical and anatomical measurements they show that there is a large variety in cellular properties, depending on the exact position of the granule cell in the cerebellum. These differences ensure that a granule cell is sensitive only in a small frequency range, but that all granule cells as a population can cover the whole frequency spectrum. Additional results show that the whole network of the cerebellum contains specialized ‘lanes’ for different frequencies. Finally, computer simulations show that these specializations of granule cells, and of the network increase the storage capacity of the cerebellum. These results contribute not only to our understanding of the cerebellum, but also to our understanding of information storage in the brain and to our general insight in the function of neurons. Future research will have to show whether the here-found results are generalizable over the whole brain, or whether other brain areas use different approaches to this problem.

photo: Stefan Hallerman & Isabelle Straub