Dominoes, Avalanches Give Insight Into Brain Function

November 6, 2006

Part of the Pulse of the Planet Science Diaries series, a glimpse of the world of science from the inside. (National Geographic News and Pulse of the Planet receive funding from the National Science Foundation.)

How does the brain work?

For John Beggs, a biophysicist at Indiana University in Bloomington, this is science's most fundamental question.

Our noggins store memories, generate new ideas, and allow us to see, hear, smell, feel, and taste. In a sense, he says, our brains define who we are.

(Related photos: Understanding the brain.)

One area of research that Beggs and other neuroscientists are investigating is the mechanism that allows the brain's cells, or neurons, to communicate with each other.

Such understanding may help researchers answer larger questions about how the organ works and could explain the causes of certain brain disorders.

According to Beggs, neurons might be able to communicate because "the brain has a mechanism to keep it tuned close to the 'critical point.'"

What is the Critical Point?

Before coming to Indiana University, Beggs was a postdoctoral fellow at the Neural Network Physiology Laboratory at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

The lab, directed by Dietmar Plenz, studies the concept of criticality in the brain.

Plenz describes the brain's critical point using the analogy of setting up and toppling dominoes.

Continued on Next Page >>


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