How complex are your synapses?

New research suggests that not all synaptic connections are the same:

Evolution’s recipe for making a brain more complex has long seemed simple enough. Just increase the number of nerve cells, or neurons, and the interconnections between them. A human brain, for instance, is three times the volume of a chimpanzee’s.

A whole new dimension of evolutionary complexity has now emerged from a cross-species study led by Dr. Seth Grant at the Sanger Institute in England.

Dr. Grant looked at the interconnections between neurons, known as synapses, which until now have been regarded as a standard feature of neurons.

But in fact the synapses get considerably more complex going up the evolutionary scale, Dr. Grant and colleagues reported online Sunday in Nature Neuroscience. In worms and flies, the synapses mediate simple forms of learning, but in higher animals they are built from a much richer array of protein components and conduct complex learning and pattern recognition, Dr. Grant said.

The finding may open a new window into how the brain operates. “One of the biggest questions in neuroscience is to answer what are the design principles by which the human brain is constructed, and this is one of those principles,” Dr. Grant said.

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