Like Friends on Facebook, Some Nerves Are Tighter than Others

Image of neuron with many connections to other neurons.

Neurons in the brain have many connections to one another. (Image courtesy of Mike Seyfang on Flickr.

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director 

Brain researchers at the University of Basel recently reported that nerve cells in the brain are organized like friends in a social network, conjuring a fascinating parallel between micro and macro human networks. In social networks, people often have many connections but only a few truly close friends. Similarly, “weak contacts in the brain have little impact, despite being in the majority,” says [Professor Thomas] Mrsic-Flogel. “The few strong connections from neurons with similar functions exert the strongest influence on the activity of their partners. This could help them work together to amplify specific information from the outside world.”

Those interested in understanding the science behind neural networks might explore OCW’s rich collection of courses from MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. The courses range from the introductory to the specialized and advanced. OCW’s most recent publications include:

  •  9.14 Brain Structure and its Origins, taught by Professor Gerald Schneider, examines the larger neural structures that form in the brain and central nervous system. This course has full audio lectures, elaborately illustrated lecture notes, questions to accompany the readings, and more.
  • 9.04 Sensory Systems, taught by Professors Peter Schiller and M. Christian Brown, examines the neural bases for sensory perception, focusing on visual and auditory systems in mammals. The course has full video lectures, selected lecture notes, and a full list of readings.

As for social networks, MIT offers many courses affording a variety of perspectives, and a number of these are represented on OCW. Here is a sampler:

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