Give the humble neuron its due. Although neuroscientists often view single nerve cells as bit players in mental life, new evidence indicates that some star on their own in recognizing specific people or objects.
Far from working as simple switches or relays in a large neural ensemble, each of these critically situated cells assists in translating familiar sights into lasting memories, proposes a team led by neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried of the University of California, Los Angeles.
Fried refers to such brain cells as thinking neurons. "Thinking involves abstraction of reality, and the currency of these cells is abstract information about what already has been seen," he says.
These neurons work with information from remarkably specific sources, the scientists report in the June 23 Nature. Depending on the person, particular cells in the medial temporal lobe—an area critical to forming long-term memories—get fired up only by, for example, images of