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Memory Capacity of the Brain May Rival the World Wide Web

First Posted: Jan 22, 2016 07:34 AM EST
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Your memory capacity may be far more massive than previously thought. Scientists have learned a bit more about the size of neural connections and have found that the capacity for memory in the brain is far higher than expected.

"This is a real bombshell in the field of neuroscience," said Terry Sejnowski, one of the researchers, in a news release. "We discovered the key to unlocking the design principle for how hippocampal neurons function with low energy but high computation power. Our new measurements of the brain's memory capacity increase conservative estimates by a factor of 10 to at least a petabyte, in the same ballpark as the World Wide Web."

Our memories and thoughts are the result of patterns of electrical and chemical activity in the brain. A key part of the activity happens when branches of neurons, much like electrical wire, interact at certain junctions known as synapses. An output "wire," called an axon, from one neuron connects to an input "wire," called a dendrite, of the second neuron. Signals travel across the synapse as chemicals called neurotransmitters to tell the receiving neuron whether to convey an electrical signal to other neurons.

In this latest study, the researchers reconstructed synapses, dendrites, axons, and glial processes from a volume of hippocampus the size of a red blood cell. They noted a surprising complexity among the synapses.

"Our data suggests there are 10 times more discrete sizes of synapses than previously thought," said Tom Bartol, one of the researchers. In computer terms, that's 26 sizes of synapses correspond to about 4.7 "bits" of information. It's an order of magnitude of precision more than anyone ever imagined.

The findings are published in the journal eLife.

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