Is your brain an organic computer? Your brain does a lot of things a computer does, like math, logic, analyzing input, creating output, and storing and retrieving information. Even at the cellular level, there are some striking similarities between brains and computers. Our brain has billions of neurons that convey and analyze electrical information. This information is binary, meaning a neuron either fires a burst of electricity or it does not fire at all. Likewise, computers transmit information electrically. And at the most basic level, computers work using bits of information that are also binary, where each bit of information is either a “1” or a “0,” nothing in between.
But brains do a lot of things that computers cannot. Our brains feel emotions, worry about the future, enjoy music and a good joke, taste the flavor of an apple, are self-aware, and fall in and out of love. Albert Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2 was not the result of a computer algorithm but, rather, of a brain making a great intellectual leap. If a brain is merely an organic computer, how can it do these things?
Part of the answer may be that whereas neurons process information like a computer, they are not the only type of brain cells processing information. Neurons only make up a small portion of your brain cells—about 15 percent.
Enter the All-Important Glia Cells
The vast majority of brain cells are called “glia” cells. For over 100 hundred years, most brain scientists saw glia as being relatively unimportant. Their function was believed to be mostly cleaning up “molecular trash” created by neurons. However, research is now showing that glia do much more than housecleaning. They are involved in learning and memory, and they help repair damaged brain areas. Glia can also communicate with neurons and with each other through “gap junctions” across large areas of the brain.
To illustrate how important glia are, almost every disease of the brain is partly or solely the result of glia malfunction. Scientists are now discovering that glia may also play a pivotal role in drug abuse, where changing glia activity may reduce drug abuse and addiction.
David Thomas is a NIDA scientist and Program Officer. He received a Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from American University in Washington, DC, and has conducted research in analgesia (pain relief) and itch. He currently works at NIDA promoting research to find better pain medications that are not addictive