Measuring human brain activity down to the cellular level: until now, this has been possible only to a limited extent. With a new approach developed by researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), it will now be much easier. The method relies on microelectrodes along with the support of brain tumor patients, who participate in studies while undergoing “awake” brain surgery. This enabled the team to identify how our brain processes numbers.
We use numbers every day. It happens in a very concrete way when we count objects. And it happens abstractly, for example when we see the symbol “8” or do complex calculations.
In a study published in the journal Cell Reports, a team of researchers and clinicians working with Simon Jacob, Professor of Translational Neurotechnology at the Department of Neurosurgery at TUM’s university hospital Klinikum rechts der Isar, was able to show how the brain processes numbers. The researchers found that individual neurons in the brains of participants were specialized in handling specific numbers. Each one of these neurons was particularly active when its “preferred” number of elements in a dot pattern was presented to the patient. To a somewhat lesser degree this was also the case when the subjects processed number symbols.
“We already knew that animals processed numbers of objects in this way,” says Prof. Jacob. “But until now, it was not possible to demonstrate conclusively how it works in humans. This has brought us a step closer to unravelling the mechanisms of cognitive functions and developing solutions when things go wrong with these brain functions, for example.”