The Brain’s Code – The Neural Code

How does our brain talk to itself? What is the mechanism of a group of nerve cells (neurons) perceiving changes in the world, transforming this into information, and producing feelings and behaviors by transferring the information to other neural networks? In order to unlock the mystery of the brain , the individual and collective communication languages ​​of neurons must be deciphered. The signal patterns that enable neurons to communicate with each other are explained by the concept of neural code, or in other words, neural language. In contrast, there is not a single neural code in the brain to decode. It is estimated that neural networks specialized for different purposes have their own unique codes. That is, those who live in the tower of Babel of the brain do not speak one language, but many. The coding of the olfactory signal is different from hearing and seeing.

Neural Code Problem

Alan Turing, one of the fathers of computers and artificial intelligence, helped decipher Germany’s secret communication method Enigma during World War II. The decoding of the brain, which we liken to an advanced computer, is a much more difficult target. In the 1960s, William Bialek described the problem of reading the neural code using information theory.

The neural code problem asks a few basic questions. How can we construct a meaningful representation of the outside world from sensory signals? How do the electrical and chemical signals transmitted by nerve cells enable the complex calculations needed to make sense of and interact with the environment? What are the anatomical and physiological factors that limit the communication of nerve cells? While these may seem simple, they may be the most difficult questions science has ever faced.

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The human brain contains 100 billion neurons. A neuron can connect with thousands of different cells. In other words, there are quadrillions of connections in our brain. In addition to this complexity, there is a dynamic structure that is constantly changing. Connections in the brain are constantly rebuilt, strengthened, weakened or lost. This dynamism is essential for adapting to the different conditions required by life and for acquiring new skills. There are different types of neurons in the brain with different characteristics. The position and number of neurons as well as their type, neurotransmitters active in synapses, growth factors in the intercellular space and hormones are just a few of the parameters that should be considered when analyzing the way the brain works.

Lots of Neural Codes

Different levels of organization of nerve cells may have different codes. In other words, it is thought that there are many neural codes that need to be deciphered at the level of individual cells, within certain functionally specialized nerve cell groups, and between different groups. For example, in the studies on the monkey brain, the sum of the individual electrical activity of the neurons in the movement center in the brain was not enough to explain the movement observed in the body. On the other hand, the general activity of the entire neuron ensemble can predict the course of the movement. This shows that even a simple movement requires the interrelated activity of tens of thousands of neurons. So how do groups of neurons in distant areas of the brain coordinate their activities? Does the neural code depend on the rate or pattern of signaling by nerve cells? While this is an old discussion, the answer is probably much more complex. Powerful mathematical tools and theories are used to decode the neural code.

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The signaling frequency of a neuron was the first type of neural code discovered. For example, as a sensory stimulus gets stronger, the firing rate of the neuron that perceives it increases. However, the type of information that can be carried by frequency alone is less. The way to convey more information could be the temporal code. In temporal coding, the time when the signals occur and the spaces between them gain meaning. Some scientists think that temporal coding is predominant in parts of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions, such as the prefrontal cortex. On a larger scale, the community code we just mentioned may gain importance. In the 1990s, Francis Crick and Christof Koch suggested that synchronized 40-hertz oscillations play a key role in consciousness. Koch later, together with Itzhak Fried, supported a theory that was previously considered improbable with experiments. According to the grandmother cell hypothesis, there are certain single neurons in our brain to remember a particular place, person, or thing. Accordingly, a single neuron appears to be capable of processing much more information than a simple switch. Sometimes, instead of tens of thousands of neurons, a single neuron activity is enough to create a meaningful message.

The Importance of Synchronization

One of the important concepts in the neural code is synchronization. Neurons firing signals together exert greater influence on their targets. In crowded neuron populations, synchrony can be observed in brain rhythms recorded with EEG. These rhythms can create a window of opportunity for neurons to communicate effectively with each other. Regulation of synchronization can be an important tool in interfering with the neural code. In this respect, decoding of the neural code involves influencing, that is, rewriting, the brain signals as well as making sense of them. One of the popular topics of science fiction, the transfer of consciousness to an artificial environment and if singularity is to happen one day, a neural code must be the prerequisites for this.

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The brain is likened to a computer because of the signals it uses and the connections it contains. If it is compared in terms of processing power capacity, it can be said that today’s most powerful computers have captured the human brain. However, this capacity alone is not enough for intelligence. The neural code is the software of our brain and creates our difference. Decoding the neural code can provide a stronger understanding for various philosophical debates such as the body-soul dilemma and free will. A thorough understanding of the way the brain works may offer new possibilities for the treatment of various diseases such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and Alzheimer’s.

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