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By Natalie Wolchover May 14, Physicists are beginning to unravel the mysteries of ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays, particles accelerated by the most powerful forces in the universe. A cosmic ray from space, it possessed exa-electron volts EeV of energy, millions of times more than particles attain at the Large Hadron Collider, the most powerful accelerator ever built by humans. The particle was going so fast that in a yearlong race with light, it would have lost by mere thousandths of a hair. Its energy equaled that of a bowling ball dropped on a toe. But bowling balls contain as many atoms as there are stars. Five or so miles from where it fell, a researcher worked his shift inside an old, rat-infested trailer parked atop a desert mountain.
In this case, anticipating the wrong stimulus leads to a surprise, and a negative response.
Years ago, Fontanini and his team found direct neural evidence of this speedup effect in the gustatory cortex, the part of the brain responsible for taste perception. Since then, they have been trying to pin down the structure of the cortical circuitry that made their results possible. Now they have.
Last month, they published their findings in Nature Neuroscience : a model of a network with a specific kind of architecture that not only provides new insights into how expectation works, but also delves into broader questions about how scientists should think about perception more generally.
Moreover, it falls in step with a theory of decision making that suggests the brain really does leap to conclusions, rather than building up to them.
Faster Senses and Active States Taste, the least studied of the senses, was the perfect place to start. After a taste hits the tongue, a few hundred milliseconds pass before activity in the gustatory cortex starts reflecting the input.
The taste itself could be sweet, salty, sour or bitter, and the anticipatory cue contained no information about which of the four it might be.
Even so, the researchers found that such general expectations could drive the neurons in the gustatory cortex to recognize the stimulus nearly twice as fast as when the rats received the taste without hearing the sound first. The period of latency dropped from roughly milliseconds to only about milliseconds.
Fontanini wanted to know what kind of neural network could theoretically enable this more rapid coding. And so he brought someone from outside the taste field into the fold: fellow Stony Brook neurobiologist Giancarlo La Camera , who had previously worked on modeling the spontaneous brain activity that occurs even in the absence of a stimulus.
The past few decades have increasingly highlighted that much of the activity in sensory networks is intrinsically generated, rather than driven by external stimuli.
Even in the absence of light, sets of neurons in the cortex begin to fire together, either at the same time or in predictable waves. The Digital Edition is free for individual print subscribers — simply register an email address and password here. To register you will need your unique subscriber number, which is printed on the cover sheet we include with your subscriber copy.
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