Yet more Llinas

There has been an article in the New York Times about Rodolfo Llinas’ ideas (here). I have blogged before about his insights – they are worth many visits. Here is part of the NYT piece by Sandra Blakeslee.


“Dr. Llinás, the chairman of neuroscience and physiology at the N.Y.U. School of Medicine, believes that abnormal brain rhythms help account for a variety of serious disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, tinnitus and depression. His theory may explain why the technique called deep brain stimulation — implanting electrodes into particular regions of the brain — often alleviates the symptoms of movement disorders like Parkinson’s.

…Unlike neuroscientists who study the brain’s outer layer, or cortex, he has focused his attention on the thalamus, a paired structure in the midbrain. He has found that each walnut-size thalamus has 30 or more nuclei, each of which specializes in one type of information collected from the senses — sights, sounds, movements, external touches, internal feelings and so on.

Each nucleus sends its message to a specific area of the cortex for initial processing. But then the information is shuttled back down to the thalamus, where it is associated with other senses. And then it is returned to the cortex in a richer, multisensory form that is constantly elaborated, reverberating into a symphony of life experiences.

The thalamus and cortex work dynamically by passing loops of information back and forth, Dr. Llinás said. “If you think of the brain as an orchestra, the thalamus is the conductor. The players are in the cortex. When the conductor makes a move, the players follow. The conductor then hears their sounds and makes new moves, resulting in a continuous dialogue.”

Cells in the thalamus and cortex rely on intrinsic electrical properties to keep the music going. “Groups of neurons, millions strong, act like little hearts beating all their own,” Dr. Llinás said. They can oscillate at multiple frequencies, depending on what is happening in the outside world.

When the brain is awake, neurons in the cortex and thalamus oscillate at the same high frequency, called gamma. “It’s like a Riverdance performance,” Dr. Llinás continued. “Some cells are tapping in harmony and some are silent, creating myriads of patterns that represent the properties of the external world. Cells with the same rhythm form circuits to bind information in time. Such coherent activity allows you to see and hear, to be alert and able to think.”

But at day’s end, cells in the thalamus naturally enter a low-frequency oscillation. They burst slowly instead of firing rapidly. With the thalamus thrumming at a slower rhythm, the cortex follows along. You fall asleep. Your brain is still tapping out slow rhythms, but consciousness is suspended….” 

This is a very convincing description to me. This is probably because it seems close to the MPOFBL idea – massively parallel over-lapping feedback loops.

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