Neurons That Distinguish Between Reality And Imagination Are Identified

neuron-ZEISSmicroscopy-flickr.jpg

A new study out of the University of Western Ontario indicates that neurons in brain areas found abnormal in psychotic patients also help people distinguish between imagination and reality.

The researchers examined how our brain codes real visual input versus abstract information in the working memory, and then analyzed how those differences are distributed among neurons in the brain’s lateral prefrontal cortex.

Real visual input involves looking at something in our field of vision, such as another person’s shirt. Abstract or working memory information involves remembering a shirt’s color when the person wearing it moves out of our field of vision; these representations are imaginary, only existing in the mind.

Participants in the study were given two tasks. One was to report the direction of a moving cloud of dots on a computer screen. The second was to report the direction of the moving cloud of dots from memory, a few seconds after the image disappeared. From this test, the researchers discovered we have neurons that are active when people are looking at something, neurons that are active in remembering what we’ve seen, and neurons that do both.

Then, the investigators developed a computer algorithm that could decipher whether a pattern of neurons firing in the prefrontal cortex was owed to a person’s direct perception, or their memory of what was perceived. By pinpointing specific neurons responsible for distinguishing between memory (imagination) and reality, the researchers hope to better understand and treat conditions such as schizophrenia that cause people to confuse what’s real and what is not.

“I would argue that schizophrenia is not a neurochemical disorder of the whole brain,” said researcher Dr. Julio Martinez-Trujillo. “It is only a neurochemical disorder in specific parts of the brain.”

Current pharmacological treatments for schizophrenia alter the neurochemistry of the entire brain, and cause severe, unpleasant side-effects. New treatments that target specific symptom-causing neurons could minimize the troubling side-effects, and improve quality of life for those with psychotic disorders.

Source: Science Daily
Photo credit: ZEISS Microscopy

 
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