Newly Discovered Brain Signal May Explain What Makes Us ‘Human’

What is it that makes humanity so human? Is it our capacity for self-awareness? Maybe our ability to create art and understand complex philosophical concepts? Or perhaps it’s just the glorious combination of our opposable thumbs and our propensity for using them to hold big sticks that we can hit each other with. Could be any of those. Heck, it could be all of those. Then again, as Live Science tells us, the answer may also be much, much simpler: A strange, unique brain signal that might provide our brains with more “computing power” than science has previously realized.  

On January 3, 2020, a study published in the Science journal revealed the discovery of a peculiar new type of electrical “spike” in the human brain dendrites. This brain signal has never been found in any non-human animal tissue whatsoever — and researchers think it might explain why our species became so intelligent. But how are we only now discovering this phenomenon? And could such a seemingly simple thing really be responsible for our rise to the top of the food chain? Let’s find out!

Can a single brain signal really give us that much of an edge?

The thing to remember here is that human brain tissue is famously hard to acquire, so researchers are usually stuck with rodent tissue. What’s more, brain tissue goes bad in just a couple of days, so you have to work extra hard and fast to get any kind of reliable data that’s applicable in non-zombie related scenarios. Thus, events conspired to make this one of the first dendrite studies on human neurons, and the scientists worked around the clock to extract as much information about their “electrical properties” as they could. 

The newly discovered brain spike is a hybrid of the super-quick “sodium event” (an electricity spike that happens when sodium enters the dendrite) and the extra-long “calcium event.” This means it’s caused by calcium but still extremely short, and the apparent uniqueness of the event in the human brain has caused the researchers to suspect it might be the deciding factor in our brainpower. Of course, it’s worth noting that the key word here is “might.” The discovery is still brand new, and the researchers themselves fully admit that it’s too early to say whether their discovery is the missing link in making us so “human.” Still, for now, isn’t it kind of cool that science believes our brains may be zapping with a strange type of super-electricity that has made us what we are? 

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