New Ideas on Neuronal Action

Wired reports that in a paper just published in Biophysics Journal, two physicists suggest that neurons communicate by sending pressure waves (rather than electrical signals, as everyone else believes) through their axons.  (Link courtesy of Blake Myers.)


  1. Eric Thomson

    If they are right, I’ll eat an Atari 2600. I write the following having not read their paper, and not being particularly interested in reading their paper.

    However, since someone should reply, here are some things that make me think electrical activity is important:
    1. Calcium-dependence of neurotransmitter release, and voltage-dependence of calcium channels at synapses (i.e., voltage change at synapse–>neurotransmitter release).
    2. The most explanatorily and predictively fedund models in neuroscience to date, the Hodgkin-Huxely model of the action potential, puts voltages, currents, and conductances into the driver’s seats.
    3. I have injected currents into individual leech neurons and observed the resulting action potentials and gross behavioral change (and this kind of experiment is done all the time).
    4. When you add pharmacological agents that turn off the little conducters that span cell membranes (such as the sodium channels with TTX) you get paralysis or other gross behavioral changes.
    5. The time course of behavioral and other changes conforms to the velocities expected if these changes are driven by electrical fluctuations (e.g., conduction time and time for synaptic transmission). I bet that their sound waves, if they existed, would travel a lot faster than action potentials.
    6. Most anesthetics have demonstrable effects on the electrical activity of neurons (often by blocking or activating neurotransmitter receptors). It seems premature to posit an entirely new mechanism to account for anesthetics we don’t yet understand.

    The above only suggests that electrical activity forms a ‘sufficient web’ to explain many behavioral and neuronal phenomena. There could be a parallel sound-wave web that explains other things: consciousness, Godel’s theorem, wavefunction collapse.

    I am all for scientific creativity, but their hypothesis seems nutty as Georgia to me. But maybe they will become like that plate tectonics guy.

  2. Eric Thomson

    The guy who postulated plate tectonics in the 1930s or so, and his theory was rejected because there wasn’t sufficient evidence to counter the competing theory (whetever that was), but he was vindicated decades later.

  3. anna-mari

    Oh, you meant that guy… I already started to fantasize about some sort of new, mad theory of neural activity called ” the plate tectonics theory of brains”. What a disappointment…

    (I am joking, ok?)

  4. Mike Wiest

    (Calvin, 1994) suggests that “hexagonal Hebbian cell assemblies could implement a cerebral code.” I think this might be your mad plate tectonic theory of the brain…

  5. Mike Wiest

    (Calvin, 1994) suggests that “hexagonal Hebbian cell assemblies could implement a cerebral code.” I think this might be your mad plate tectonic theory of the brain…

  6. anna-mari

    Of course. I should have seen this coming… from Mike Wiest´s computer.

    Thanks, Mike (and nice to hear about you again)



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