This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 02 table of contents.

"Neurons are People"

If you add up all the findings of the quiet revolution, it becomes clear that neurons are highly complex systems in their own right. They are not just tiny beads in a chain, the way they looked in textbook diagrams of the 1950s. Each neuron is a sophisticated processing unit. The eminent neuroscientist Theodore H. Bullock is said to have remarked, "Neurons are people."

What did Bullock mean by saying "Neurons are people"?

What did Bullock mean? Probably he was referring to the individuality yet predictability of neurons. Each neuron has a personality or characteristic way of responding to different situations. Researchers get to know a neuron's personality by observing it in action. They cannot determine its personality merely from its position in the neural network.

What have researchers discovered about neurons in the aplysia?

An example involves intensive research into the aplysia or sea slug. The aplysia is handy for researchers because it is large (as big as an adult hand) but it has a simple nervous system with huge nerve cells cells that are easy to penetrate and monitor witih microelectrodes. It has been the focus of an impressive research program stretching over 30 years headed by Eric Kandel. Researchers who spend time with the aplysia nervous system become able to predict what each neuron will do in specific situations. When the sea slug is feeding, neuron #3 (let us say) will be very active, firing many nerve impulses. When a predator attacks the sea slug, neuron #4 will be very active. When a sea slug of the opposite sex appears, neurons #3 and #4 both fire lots of nerve impulses. So each neuron has a personality or perhaps multiple personalities (because a single neuron will perform several distinct functions). The neuron's behavior is consistent over time, like the personality of a human being.

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