Cell assemblies are memory traces…

This morning I had a fascinating video conversation with a former postdoc, now associate professor. We were talking about a neuroscience concept called the cell assembly–an idea that had its genesis in the lab of my Dad’s postdoc advisor, Donald Hebb at McGill University in the early 1950’s. Basically the idea goes something like this:

Memories, perceptions, concepts are all stored in the human brain via spatially-separated collectives of neurons that are bound together by their activity (firing action potentials). The pithy version of this goes: neurons that fire together, wire together.

In any case this allows individual neurons to participate in many such cell assemblies and the available cell assemblies based on the combinatorial mathematics of c. 86 billion neurons is very large. Further, these cells assemblies (think each containing perhaps 300 members) are very robust. With a symphony orchestra, you probably won’t notice any single instrument dropping out during Beethoven’s 9th symphony finale. Same with cell assemblies.

I am still very much struck by this construct of cell assemblies. As neuroscience has progressed, this is an idea that is very much evergreen.