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Neurons might contain something within them (join.substack.com)
101 points by nahuel0x 26 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 67 comments

The subtitle is

> Neurons might contain something incredible within them.

but the HN title right now is

> Neurons might contain something within them

I guess there's some intensifier filter that removes "AMAZING" and "INCREDIBLE!" and "10 REASONS YOU'LL BE SHOCKED". But I like to imagine that people previously thought that neurons were entirely hollow

Yup, that filter a.k.a. the debaiter does a far from perfect job. Submitters can always fix the titles it mangles by clicking 'edit'. Just please don't put bait back in.

I'm rather fond of what the software came up with here. The title it was given is so bad that I'm having trouble thinking of a better edit myself, and the main article title is even worse. As for the article body:

Surely the blackout on this ferret-experiment cannot last forever.

I think we can maybe wait for a more neutral source?

In either case, it's a bad title. It should be rewritten to avoid clickbait.

Edit: sigh. To quote the guidelines:


> Please use the original title, unless it is misleading or linkbait; don't editorialize.

IIRC the submitter can re-edit the title and it doesn't filter them the second time. The edit button disappears after a while tho.

Obviously, it means "something newly noteworthy in them".

Not the stuff you already know they contain, like cytoplasm and a nucleus and other cell materials.

This is really cool. I knew there was a policy on titles for submissions but not that there is also an automated process. Do you know if it's documented anywhere or are the details intentionally keep a mystery?

A question that immediately came to my mind upon reading this comment was “what kind of title would turn from benign one into a clickbait only through such filter”

There are two schools of thoughts as to where "memory" is stored in neuronal networks. The larger group of neuroscientists believe it is at the synaptic level, as huge amount of research has shown how synapses change when they undergo Long Term Potentiation (LTP) or Long Term Differntiation (LTD) which relate to increase and decrease in synapse size while undergoing learning. The former correlates to strengething of a synaptic connection and the latter to the opposite.

Gallistel, Hesslow (PI of ferret study, [0]) and colleagues constitute the second, relatively smaller, group of neuroscientists who believe synapses are only an "effect" that one sees as a result of learning. The true mechanisms are either hidden in the nucleus, cell membrane or somewhere inside the cell [1]. This group so far has only very few substantially convincing experiments and more hypotheses. The ferret study [0] is one such experiment in this direction which was published in 2015. I am not aware of any more data to prove any of the hypothesis.

But of course even the inherent mechanisms that guide synapse formation and alteration are in the end guided by proteins "inside" the neuron. To me it seems these two groups are looking at the same idea at different steps of the memory learning pipeline.

[0] https://www.pnas.org/content/112/45/14060 [1] https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/2101/2101.09774.pdf

In general in biology, when there is long-standing dispute as to whether a certain system relies on Mechanism X or Mechanism Y, my impression is that the answer almost invariably turns out to be that X, Y, and previously-unsuspected Z all play a role.

Good take.


- X=neural network geometric configuration,

- Y=individual synapses due to the various neurotransmitters,

- Z=cytoskeleton (already suspected to play a role)


It seems reasonable to suspect that there's a lot of duplication in the human brain - as demonstrated by the periodic articles about people who function normally with brains compressed/shrunk to a tiny percentage of normal size. And I guess that duplication comes from the multiple systems all able to provide a similar function.

For example, man with 10% normal brain size: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn12301-man-with-tiny-b...

as for 'storage of durations' mentioned in the interview there is a well known paper on "time cells" in the hippocampus [0] by Howard Eichenbaum et al. which doesn't seem to refer to Purkinje cells (which only exist in the cerebellum [1]).

There is significant evidence for temporal memory maintained in the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex [2], just like grid cells[3] in the hippocampus used as coordinate system for spatial and abstract navigation [4] while time cells facilitate "navigation" in temporal dimension.

[0] Hippocampal "time cells" bridge the gap in memory for discontiguous events https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21867888/

[1] Basic anatomy of human memory https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wsu-sandbox/chapter/parts-...

[2] Time cells in the human hippocampus and entorhinal cortex support episodic memory https://www.pnas.org/content/117/45/28463

[3] Grid cells: http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Grid_cells

[4] Time (and space) in the hippocampus https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S235215461...

Truly, I believe there are multiple architectures for information processing in the body, and not only in the brain/neurons. Think of the computing landscape where you have a salad bowl of ANN's implemented on TPU's, some GPU's, some specialized ASIC's, DSP's, some CPU's. There is no reason to believe efficient information encoding through evolution ends up with one architecture. It's going to turn out to be as varied as the differentiated cells in the body, though there may be some unification in foundational units at the equivalent level of transistors of something, maybe some molecular machinery that stores a bit or activates a switch. Presumably that's what Gallistel is looking for. It does seem wasteful for a whole neuron to be the basic unit of information processing, so I agree there should be something more atomic inside.

I always saw the hormones that regulate our emotions as primitive forms of memory, older than neurons. So an organism can remain in a certain state for a while.

There is also the possibility that RNA is used for memory:


That is an interesting line of thought. Cortex and non-cortical regions are somewhat different in terms of their cell types composition which could inherently support different computation and learning mechanisms.

I think scientists should consider a third possibility. That brains overall are actually far more computationally complex (or has far more state-based, CPU-like-behavior) than it needs to be for the intelligence involved in human actions.

It seems plausible to me that the smaller the detail space one goes in, the more overall computation is limited by data-movement bandwidth rather than discreet computation operations. Intel has a couple extra CPUs in just sitting on top of their regular CPUs (manage engine and all-that). GPU computation is often bandwidth limited as well. So basically, perhaps it's possible to do storage and computation in multiple fashions in the brain and nature being nature, does all of them 'cause nothing prevents it. And that ultimately results in computation that might band width efficient but which only a bit of the CPU-like-processes because there isn't a way do things other ways.

I think it's a bit more than looking at different steps, it's about what's fundamental architecturally vs. not. The synaptic side is saying the internals aren't fundamental, in the same sense that you can have ANN's that are nothing but weights and connections. Gallistel is saying the weights and connections aren't fundamental, or at least trivial compared to a state-storing/state-processing machinery inside. Maybe both exist, but either one being more fundamental or important than the other is a salient conceptional difference.

I wonder why both mechanisms could not be in place simultaneously.

E.g. brain can run on glucose or on ketones; muscles can run on oxygen producing CO₂ or without it producing lactic acid, etc. The body has a number of alternative mechanisms, this may be another such pair.

Synapses are formed outside the neuron in the extracellular space (ECS), at the end of axon terminals called "boutons" which are essentially storehouses for vesciles which are tiny packages containing neurotransmitters. The internal mechanisms of the neurons as well as ongoing biochemistry at the location of a synapses "guides" the transfer of proteins necessary for strenghening of removal of these synapses.

So its possible that both mechanisms occur simultaneously, there's just not enough evidence to clearly understand these (yet).

What’s incredible to me is how long the human brain remains a trade secret from nature. Have we ever made a product so well concealed that its IP would withstand being sent for more than 5 years to every “spy” country in the world? Let alone be sitting there for a millenium on top of every human... If that’s not nature’s way to taunt us, its capacity to remain a secret is at least admirable.

Why not both? These ideas seem compatible.

Nice story, but actually it is superconductors that lurk inside, with absurdly high critical temperatures.


Each neuron contains within itself a nanostructure whose resonance acts as an antenna both for receiving quark vibration frequencies and transmitting back to them for synchronization, effectively forming a communication protocol with higher dimensional string structures.

In higher dimensions our common thoughts are aggregated into massive socially-shared hyperbrains, each of which is segregated from the other based on both cultural and genetic similarity between specimens (mostly of the same species). Hyperbrains form a trie predicated on the commonality of our toughts and the closer you move to its roots, the closer you get to our biological origins, until eventually all species merge at the root.

Our individual biological brains then acts only as secondary devices similar to how L1/2/3 CPU cache is to the main memory of a computer. We use our brains to think only when the communication bridge is unstable, or when our experiences cannot be matched into compatibly vibrating wavelets in the hyperbrain. Our brains are also an anchoring devices of the self. While the hyperbrain encodes the shared memories and experiences of entire groups of specimens, our brain is a "diff" between the personal and the communal.

OK, anyway, I had fun making some stuff up, it's not like I understand anything this article says.

I think it's not too implausible that something like this could be real in the distant future. Most would rely on the collective biological-abiological-hybrid hyperbrain(s) for most things most of the time, but (biological or otherwise) individuals or sub-collectives/colonies would also narrowly specialize and rely on local processing when they believe their specialized cognition/ideation is more effective/efficient than deferring to the collective. Or when they just want some privacy.

Entities would be able to seamlessly "context switch" between the different scales of shared memories/knowledge/mental models, from universal to individual. Hopefully with some rigorous isolation so that only you can ever access your individual mind. Maybe also some vandalism mitigations for those who might want to mess with the universal Neurapedia. Plus some kind of hardware switch that can fully cut the connection at a moment's notice, in the event of some neural 0-day or DoS.

In practice it might be infeasible to make it both seamless and safe from adversarial risks, but people said the same of Wikipedia. Though, the consequences of a manipulated Wikipedia article are probably a little different from the consequences of a manipulated neural interface/network.

You channeled Deepak Chopra for a minute there, glad you recovered though!

Thanks, now someone is going to take this and start scientology 2.0.

I expected to find a reference to some sci-fi book at the end of this.

Well, no book, but I might as well write one, why not :P

That's not that far off from the actual notions of panpsychism (a philosophical rabbit-hole if ever there was one).

Tack on a smattering of Orch-OR (Penrose and Hammeroff) and you have something like this, only there are actual papers about it.

I do have to wonder if Hammeroff isn't coming at the encoding part from the other direction. His work showed quantum-encoding structures in the microtubules inside neurons which could encode quite a bit of information, even to the point of functioning like little Turing machines. (Hammeroff encoded cellular automata on a simulacrum of these structures.) Maybe that "string" the article keeps talking about leads there.

At any rate, when an article uses slashes so frequently like that, you can tell it is more of a rant.

Wow! I was really into it right until the end. What an amazing imagination. Thanks for putting that together and sharing your creativity.

I was hoping you'd tie this in with some occult/pseudoscience stuff. Some people would gobble that up.

Frankly I'm almost gobbling it up myself as I type it.

I guess I'm gullible.

Well crap - I thought this was amazing. :-(

Are you sure (y)our hyperbrain didnt make you write this?

Beautifully written. Now all you need is to open store on Etsy with some crystals and similar junk :)

On serious note: I wonder if there is a generator somewhere for this kind of BS. I have bookmarks for several (corpo lingo, resume, progressive newspeak, etc.), but not for this new age style.

So this is what HN is doing now? I thought this shit was left for reddit.

When I was studying cognitive modelling at Waterloo, I remember more than a few people who were looking at micro and nano structures within neurons to see if the functionality was far more than simply as an amplifier and the like. In fact, one of the more intriguing ideas was one brought up by Penrose (I believe) where he believed in the possibility that there is a device within the neuron that could allow for some primitive form of quantum computation.

Honestly, while I felt his idea was over reaching, the general idea that quantum noise can effect such a chaotic system was not entirely out of belief for me.

Reminds me of The Prometheus Rising

William James, father of American psychology, tells of meeting an old lady who told him the Earth rested on the back of a huge turtle.

"But, my dear lady," Professor James asked, as politely as possible, "what holds up the turtle?""It's no use, Professor," said the old lady "It's turtles-turtles- turtles, all the way!"

The Turtles thing predates James (and was probably originally rocks): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turtles_all_the_way_down

I know, the original source is obscure on that one.

I've also heard that the anecdote (mentioned in TPR) didn't involve William James and that it was Bert Russell talking to the lady.

I never tire of hearing these apocryphal turtle stories. They’re just hilarious to me.

I thought I hit rock bottom, but then I realized there were more rock bottoms beneath the rock bottom. It's rock bottoms all the way down.

"they’re committed to the Aristotelean idea that there is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses. [...] The problem is that there are no sensory receptors for times of day and for interval-durations. A duration doesn’t feel like anything—it’s ineffable."

Where does Aristotle actually say that time is known as an object of the senses? I assure you he never says this. For Aristotle, time is the measure of change with respect to succession. Time is not a "thing"!

Tabula rasa doesn't mean that mental faculties don't exist. That's not what it means for something not to be in the mind that was not in the senses.

The interviewee is silly in his hostility toward Aristotle, especially given the basic lack of understanding.

That ferret experiment sounds ghastly. Am picturing it in some quack's garage for some reason.

The ethical review board is just a piece of plywood with a thumbs up drawn on it.

There was an article here lately that basically stated it would be surprising if DNA, RNA or some similar mechanism wasn't used for storing long-term information because it is so well-suited to the task. Is this more then pseudo science?

There seems to be more investigative work:


I don't know but sounds likr assassin's creed.

"Finding numbers in the brain" by C.R. Gallistel: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rstb.201...

Edit: also see his article on this from 2015 "Here's Why Most Neuroscientists Are Wrong About the Brain" https://nautil.us/blog/heres-why-most-neuroscientists-are-wr...

I am not sure that is the ferret experiment mentioned. However, this [0] one might be.

[0] https://www.pnas.org/content/112/45/14060

The article says:

>With one caveat: whatever it looks like, it has to be apparent that its form gives it the functional properties of the polypeptides (the class of molecules that DNA belongs to).

But DNA isn't a polypeptide.

No, but it's a polymer. From the context, I guess that was the word aimed at.

It doesn't seem outlandish to me that the neuron would contain information about itself from the time it was formed/programed/activated// about what it is, how and when it should fire, etc. given the complexity of the neural networks, it would be more strange than not that the neuron wouldn't have some form of metadata? (Mostly thinking about the relationship between minicolumns and the neuron and the neural network at large)

Oh! I guess the HN title is placated to avoid clickbait accusations - but in those case it doesn’t make sense without the word “Incredible”.

Neurons have to have something in them. Even empty space has quantum fluctuations!

Mainstream neuroscientists don't find it outlandish at all. Gallistel is 80 years old and that might not explain why he has not kept up with neuroscience in the last 10-20 years.

Single neuron is very complex beast. They seem to be more similar to multi-layer perceptrons with multiple nonlinear steps. When neuron adapts that's memory single neuron level.

I didn't find the jand-waving analogies persuasive, but it hadn't really struck me before how extraordinary it is that DNA uses a code for proteins (3-base).

So I read the article on the ferret experiment "Memory trace and timing mechanism localized to cerebellar Purkinje cells" , and very simplified:

theres this big neuron called a Purkinje cell with a large dendritic tree (input side).

Purkinje cells have parallel fibers (axons) and climbing fibers (CF also axons) that synapse with their dendritic tree.

To make a long story short one type carries a warning signal which I will call the Start signal, and the other carries unconditional reflex signal (induced such that it elicits a blink) which I will call the Stop signal.

The training involves a warning start stimulus, then a fixed pause, and then the annoying stop stimulus. After training, it is observed that the neuron statistically responds after a pause commensurate with the trained pause.

Okay perhaps a single neuron programmable variable delay is not easy to explain with a conventional synaptically weighted neuron. (at this point I remark to myself that a conventional synaptic weighted neuron might still do that in theory if the input axon is long and windy to use it as a delay line memory, but then it would need to have lots of synapses with the same Purkinje cell, so I reject this brainfart as not biologically plausible)

Then training was resumed with a second interval, and after this secondary training the following was observed: after receiving a start signal, the purkinje cell statistically responds with 2 (!) responses corresponding to the trained pauses! To them this is the nail in the coffin for the combinational synaptic weighted neuron model. But This just makes me remember my original tap filter layout: the same single input axon could function as a delay line with multiple synaptic taps activated at different times.

So I look up the terms parallel fiber and climbing fiber... and guess what: unless the brain is still gestating or suffered local damage each Purkinje cell has exactly 1 climbing fiber axon associated with it. And this climbing fiber is long and windy and makes loads of synaptic connections. So the initial remaining explanation delay line tap filter brainfart (which I viewed as myself clasping at straws to save the synaptically weighted neuron model), turns out to be nearly exactly the layout of climbing fiber on purkinje cell. you can view this as a programmable tap filter, or as an impulse response convolver.

So instead of deposing the synaptically weighted neuron perspective, I view this as strengthening the usual interpretation! Evolution forced synaptically weighted neuron model to contort itself into an awkward tapped delay line filter!

Betting it will turn out to be DNA that encodes memories. And that nobody has done anything to check for DNA out of place in nerve cells.

Addressing will be by fuzzy hash of recently activated records.

So this article is saying something like: modern neuroscience thinks that the "storage" mechanism is based on connections but maybe there's more like "secondary memory" on each neuron that can also store "facts"?

I can see the connection thing. It's like

  circle -> ball -> -- -> lightbulb
  white  -> light _/
Here circle and white come from a group of neurons firing when the electrical stimuly from the eye hits them and that particular group from a lot of lower level "concepts" fires the white and the circle.

Is someone saying that maybe a single neuron can "store" something like "white"?

I only see one claim backed by experiment: “The ferret-experiment shows that the measuring of—and then storage of—a maximally-simple experiential-fact (the duration of the interval between two simple events) occurs within a single huge cell (neuron) in the cerebellum. It also shows that subsequent single-spike input to this cell triggers the reading-out of this memory into a simple behavior: an appropriately-timed blink.”

The huge cell is a Purkinje cell. I don’t remember much about neuroscience, so I hope someone else can elaborate.

Later on the interview suggests that every single neuron could store megabytes of information, but this seems more like conjecture to me.

All in all I don't believe information can exist in a vacuum and 'white', even mostly encoded in one neuron, is probably still coupled with every other neuron related to any white stimuli or concept (color, spectrum, hue, negative, its spelling, voice, heat, locations...)

The blank slate theory is obviously incorrect, but I'm wondering if the information in baby brain is genetic or transferred from mother's brain during pregnancy.

Uh oh, better upgrade the neural networks, and quit using all the GPUs to mine Ethereum, otherwise we’ll never get the AI overlord we deserve!

Oops — now we have to rewrite all those Artificial Neural Network libraries!

People can't fully perceive their own consciousness, stop trying.

It was already accepted neurons store numbers (weights on each input for example). How is this different?

If I understand the article correctly, the suggestion is that it is not primarily the synapse (connection between neurons) that is storing the "number", but something in the central part of the neuron. IANAN (I Am Not A Neuroscientist).

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