Neurons Filter Out Irrelevant Information
Scientists have discovered how a small subset of neurons in the zebrafish brain has a big impact on an important behavior—the ability to hunt down prey. In a study published in the October 29th issue of Science, Dr. Herwig Baier of UC San Francisco and Dr. Ehud Isacoff of UC Berkeley, investigators in the Common Fund’s Nanomedicine program, use a novel fluorescent reporter of nerve cell activity to uncover how zebrafish can spot a tiny, one-celled paramecium against a complex visual background. The optic tectum in zebrafish is a layered structure that receives signals from the eye in the superficial layer, and sends signals from the deeper layer out to motor areas of the brain that control movement. Drs. Baier and Isacoff and colleagues demonstrate that a group of neurons in the optic tectum called superficial inhibitory neurons (SINs) acts to "filter out" large background patterns, allowing the tectum to send specific messages to motor areas about small, moving objects like prey. Silencing or destroying SINs eliminates this filtering, and impairs the zebrafish’s ability to catch prey. The selective filtering of irrelevant background information is found throughout the brain of many animals, including humans, but relatively little is known about the individual nerve cells that underlie this process. This study offers important insight about how circuits of nerve cells can provide background filtering, and suggests similar mechanisms may be found in human brains.
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