Washington State University

Ask Dr. Universe

How many neurons does it take…?

January 6th, 2012

Dear Dr. Universe,
How does my mind work?
“SoccerGirl”
Pearland, Texas

Brain model

Brain model

Remember Gina Poe? She’s a scientist here at WSU who studies why we sleep. And why ask someone who studies sleep how your brain works? Well, the brain is what sleep is all about. But we’ll come back to that.

First, Professor Poe lists all the things your brain does:

It directs your body to move, smile, eat, run, jump, blink your eyes, laugh, and play the piano. It is where you feel joy, excitement, anger, sorrow. It tells your heart to pump and makes you breathe faster or slower according to the signals it gets from your body and itself.

The brain is where your personality lives. It is where all your memories are stored. It thinks, imagines, creates, tells jokes, understands jokes. It makes sense of your senses—your hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, seeing—which reach the brain by signals sent along your nerves.

All this, and more, it does with about 100 billion neurons, or nerve cells, which are connected to each other and talk to each other with electrical and chemical signals. Each of these neurons can connect with surrounding neurons in about 10,000 different ways! One kind of neuron, the Purkinje cell, makes as many as 100,000 connections!

Besides the neurons, there are glial (which comes from the Greek word for glue) cells, about twice as many as there are neurons. Glial cells regulate different substances (such as glucose and potassium ions) that the neurons need. They also provide a structure, or framework, for the neurons and insulate the neurons so their electrical signals work better.

Different kinds of neurons work in different ways. And different areas of the brain do different things. Even different kinds of memory are stored in different parts of your brain. Your brain, says Professor Poe, is like a small city. A brain and a city (and an ant colony—but that’s another story) have lots of different parts doing different things, but altogether they are one.

What all these different functions have in common is that the neurons make it all possible. Even though there are different kinds of neurons, they work pretty much the same way, by signaling other neurons through electrical and chemical signals and forming connections, called synapses, and forming patterns and networks with other neurons.

In fact your brain is constantly talking to itself, synapses forming, neurons forming new patterns as they react to new signals from your body and your friends and the rest of the world!

In fact, experience actually alters the “microcircuitry” of the brain. Memories, for example, can have an actual shape!

Just last fall, Swiss scientists confirmed what a lot of scientists had suspected, that neurons lock in memory not just by turning on a connection, but by actually forming new synapses.

So think about this for a little bit. What if these billions of neurons just keep doing all this, on, off, information in, information out, each neuron talking to a thousand neighbors, changing relationships from one pattern to another, then another, then another, THOUSANDS OF TIMES A DAY!

Professor Poe and James Krueger, another sleep researcher here at WSU, believe that the brain needs sleep in order to tidy itself and to strengthen some of the connections and relationships that need to last, such as important things you need to remember. The brain needs sleep to put itself in order.

And almost no one gets enough sleep. Kids, especially, need lots of sleep for a healthy brain, at least nine or ten hours. So turn off your computer, turn off your TV, and go to sleep! Your brain will work a lot better.

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