The brain compresses data like an MP3

Granule cells improve the storage capacity of the brain using the same trick that is used to compress digital audio files into an MP3.

A slice of brain from the cerebellum of a mouse and a small glass pipette (left) measuring the electrical activity of granule cells. This revealed that electrical input into the cerebellum is split like light in a prism (right) between different granule cells (color-coded) depending on the repetition rate of the signal being received. Image credit: Isabelle Straub (CC BY 4.0)

The timing of movements such as posture, balance and speech are coordinated by a region of the brain called the cerebellum. Although this part of the brain is small, it contains a huge number of tiny nerve cells known as granule cells. These cells make up more than half the nerve cells in the human brain. But why there are so many is not well understood.

The cerebellum receives signals from sensory organs, such as the ears and eyes, which are passed on as electrical pulses from nerve to nerve until they reach the granule cells. These electrical pulses can have very different repetition rates, ranging from one pulse to a thousand pulses per second. Previous studies have suggested that granule cells are a uniform population that can detect specific patterns within these electrical pulses. However, this would require granule cells to identify patterns in signals that have a range of different repetition rates, which is difficult for individual nerve cells to do.

To investigate if granule cells are indeed a uniform population, Straub, Witter, Eshra, Hoidis et al. measured the electrical properties of granule cells from the cerebellum of mice. This revealed that granule cells have different electrical properties depending on how deep they are within the cerebellum. These differences enabled the granule cells to detect sensory signals that had specific repetition rates: signals that contained lots of repeats per second were relayed by granule cells in the lower layers of the cerebellum, while signals that contained fewer repeats were relayed by granule cells in the outer layers.

This ability to separate signals based on their rate of repetition is similar to how digital audio files are compressed into an MP3. Computer simulations suggested that having granule cells that can detect specific rates of repetition improves the storage capacity of the brain.

These findings further our understanding of how the cerebellum works and the cellular mechanisms that underlie how humans learn and memorize the timing of movement. This mechanism of separating signals to improve storage capacity may apply to other regions of the brain, such as the hippocampus, where differences between nerve cells have also recently been reported.