In 2005, a shocking article came out in Nature. The authors of the article reported that they had discovered an incredible subset of neurons in the brain that were selectively activated by pictures of given individuals, landmarks or objects. Even more remarkable than this discovery in and of itself was that these neurons were activated by pictures that looked totally different, despite featuring the same person, place or thing (imagine the same beach in the middle of a hurricane and on a sunny summer’s day).
The discovery within this study that really got people talking was what has come to be known as the “Jennifer Aniston cell.” This neuron fired action potentials in response to all pictures of Jennifer Aniston (her face, full body, pictures taken from different angles, etc.), but not (or only very weakly) to other famous and non-famous faces, landmarks, animals or objects.
Despite the finding in this study, the idea that there is a neuron in the brain that fires selectively for every individual person, place and thing in the world is not viable. This idea, that a single neuron can represent a complex but specific concept or object, is known as the “grandmother cell hypothesis,” and was coined around 1969 by Jerry Lettvin.
So if individual neurons that fire selectively for a single celebrity are not these so-called “grandmother cells,” how do we explain their highly selective activity? The most probable explanation is that any concept, person, thing or memory is made up of a network of dozens, perhaps hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cells. These researchers who found the Jennifer Aniston neuron just happened to lock on to a cell within that network during the course of the research study.
So a single neuron that fires selectively and exclusively at a picture of your face may not exist. However, this doesn’t mean that you can never have a neuron named after you! Why’s that? Because if you’re on the winning team in the EyeWire games, you get official naming rights of a retinal gangion cell (part of the optic nerve!). This time around, the neuron that is nameless and up-for-grabs is JAM-B cell #1 on EyeWire. If you negotiate cleverly with your teammates, maybe you can convince them that the JAM-B cell should take on your name 🙂
Sign up and recruit friends for the competition now, and start thinking of names!