question: job of a neuron

Richard Norman rsnorman at
Sat Sep 1 21:50:25 EST 2001

On Sat, 01 Sep 2001 22:47:08 GMT, remove_this!helbrecht at
("Wolfram") wrote:

>Hello everyone,
>in the field of neuroscience i am layman. I have no clinical
>background nor nothing else. Just a person (a bit) interested in
>the field.
>Everywhere on the web i can read pages about _how_ neurons work,
>_how_ they interact with others, _how_ the whole brain works (some
>pages assert this).
>Has yet someone figured out _what_ a neuron does, i.e. what its
>task is?

A neuron is a specialized animal cell that uses changes in membrane
potential to control secretion of specialized intercellular signaling
chemicals -- neurotransmitters.  It also responds to, among many other
changes in its environment (and possibly its external environment) the
action of those specialized intercellular signaling chemicals --
neurotransmitters -- released from other neurons by changing its
membrane potential.

It is really not appropriate to ask what its "task" is.  That would be
like asking what the task of a particular "flip-flop" element in the
internal logic of CPU storage register is.  Its task is to use its
biochemical and biochemical machinery to process information.  One
real difference between neurons and electronic computational elements
is that neurons tend to change their properties as a result of the
information processing they do -- they show plasticity.

It is trivial to build simple computing elements AND, OR, NOT
circuits, out of neurons.  It is a well known fact of computer science
that you can build a complete general-purpose computer out of such
elements and that such a computer can  calculate anything that is
computable (in a very specialized technical sense).  That is, a
computer built of neurons could theoretically do anyghing that is
computable.  And the brain certainly is a form of computer.  The
general operating principles are all fairly well known.  The devil is
in the details.  And it is all details.

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