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Some Brain Cells Seem to Multitask

Last Updated: June 09, 2010.

Is it a car or a cat? Certain neurons can tell, researchers say.

WEDNESDAY, June 9 (HealthDay News) -- Certain types of "multitasking" brain cells (neurons) can correctly identify a wide variety of objects, ranging from cars to cats, a new study finds.

A team at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory monitored activity in the prefrontal cortex of monkeys as they switched back and forth from distinguishing between cats vs. dogs and sports cars vs. sedans. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain involved in decision-making and planning.

While they did find individual neurons that were more attuned to either car images or animal images, the researchers were surprised to find that many neurons were active in both categories. In fact, these "multitasking" neurons were best at making correct identifications in both the car and animal categories.

The findings, published June 10 in the journal Neuron, suggest that cognitive demand (the amount of brain power required for a particular task) may influence whether neurons in the prefrontal cortex limit themselves to certain categories or multitask, said the researchers.

"This ability to multitask allows the brain to re-utilize the same pool of neurons for different tasks. Without it, storage capacity for critical thought might be severely limited," study author Earl K. Miller, a professor of neuroscience, said in a news release from MIT.

He added that this research could lead to a better understanding of disorders, such as autism and schizophrenia, in which people become overwhelmed by individual stimuli. For example, asking an autistic person to picture a dog may result in a flood of mental images of every dog he or she has ever seen.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about autism.

SOURCE: MIT, news release, June 9, 2010

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