We like to think of brains as computers: A physical system that processes inputs and spits out outputs. But, obviously, what’s between your ears bears little resemblance to your laptop.

We know the brain is a vast and intricate network of cells called neurons that communicate by way of electrical and chemical signals. What’s harder to figure out is how this network makes sense of the world.

To do that, scientists try to tie behavior to activity in the brain by listening to the chatter of its neurons firing. If neurons in a region get rowdy when a person is eating chocolate, well, those cells might be processing taste or directing chewing. This method has mostly focused on the frequency at which neurons fire—that is, how often they fire in a given period of time.

But frequency alone is an imprecise measure. For years, research in rats has suggested that when neurons fire relative to their peers—during navigation of spaces in particular—may also encode information. This process, in which the timing of some neurons grows increasingly out of step with their neighbors, is called “phase precession.”

It wasn’t known if phase precession was widespread in mammals, but recent studies have found it in bats and marmosets. And now, a new study has shown that it happens in humans too, strengthening the case that phase precession may occur across species.

The new study also found evidence of phase precession outside of spatial tasks, lending some weight to the idea it may be a more general process in learning throughout the brain.

The paper was published in the journal Cell last month by a Columbia University team of researchers led by neuroscientist and biomedical engineer Josh Jacobs.

Though phase precession in rats has been studied for decades, it’s taken longer to unearth it in humans for a couple reasons. For one, it’s more challenging to study in humans at the level of neurons because it requires placing electrodes deep in the brain. Also, our patterns of brain activity are subtler and more complex, making them harder to untangle.

 

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