Inside the brain's neocortex lies a sub-network of highly active neurons. Turns out, these neurons behave a lot like people in social networks.
The discovery was made by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.
"Like Facebook, these neuronal networks have a small population of highly active members who give and receive more information than the majority of other members," said CMU's Alison Barth.
By identifying these neurons, scientists can further increase their understanding of the neocortex.
The neocortex is believed to be the brain's center of higher learning.
It's made of nearly trillions of neurons. Its functions include sensory perception, motor function, spatial reasoning, conscious thought and language.
Neuroscientists have been studying the neocortex for 40 years. But technologies had only allowed them to look broadly at general areas of the brain — not at the high-resolution of individual neurons.
While they believed only a small proportion of neurons were doing most of the work in the neocortex, they couldn't see if it was true.
The researchers used a specialized transgenic mouse model developed by Barth to clearly see which neurons were the most active.
Barth says there is a small, but significant, population of neurons that are more connected than other neurons.
These neurons do most of the heavy lifting — giving and receiving more information than the rest of the neurons in their network.
"It's like Facebook. Most of your friends don't post much — if at all. But, there is a small percentage of your friends on Facebook who update their status and page often," she said.
"Those people are more likely to be connected to more friends. So while they're sharing more information, they're also receiving more information from their expanded network, which includes other more active participants."
The study is published in the journal Neuron. Its findings stand to have a dramatic impact on neuroscience.
The researchers plan to study these neurons to see what role, if any, these neurons play in learning.