Some Basics

A nerve cell, or neuron, is a cell that receives information from other nerve cells or from the sensory organs and then projects that information to other nerve cells, while still other neurons project it back to the parts of the body that interact with the environment, such as the muscles. Nerve cells are equipped with a cell body—a sort of metabolic heart—and an enormous treelike structure called the dendritic field, which is the input side of the neuron. Information comes into the cell from projections called axons. Most of the excitatory information comes into the cell from the dendritic field, often through tiny dendritic projections called spines. The junctions through which information passes from one neuron to another are called synapses, which can be excitatory or inhibitory in nature. The neuron integrates the information it receives from all of its synapses and this determines its output.

During the development process, the “wring diagram” of the brain is created through the formation of synapses. At birth, the human brain has in place only a relatively small proportion of the trillions of synapses it will eventually have; it gains about two-thirds of its adult size after birth. The rest of the synapses are formed after birth, and a portion of this process is guided by experience.

Synaptic connections are added to the brain in two basic ways. The first way is that synapses are overproduced, then selectively lost. Synapse overproduction and loss is a fundamental mechanism that the brain uses to incorporate information from experience. It tends to occur during the early periods of development. In the visual cortex—the area of the cerebral cortex of the brain that controls sight—a person has many more synapses at 6 months of age than at adulthood. This is because more and more synapses are formed in the early months of life, then they disappear, sometimes in prodigious numbers. The time required for this phenomenon to run its course varies in different parts of the brain, from 2 to 3 years in the human visual cortex to 8 to 10 years in some parts of the frontal cortex.

Some neuroscientists explain synapse formation by analogy to the art of sculpture. Classical artists working in marble created a sculpture by chiseling away unnecessary bits of stone until they achieved their final form. Animal studies suggest that the “pruning” that occurs during synapse overproduction and loss is similar to this act of carving a sculpture. The nervous system sets up a large number of connections; experience then plays on this network, selecting the appropriate connections and removing the inappropriate ones. What remains is a refined final form that constitutes the sensory and perhaps the cognitive bases for the later phases of development.

The second method of synapse formation is through the addition of new synapses—like the artist who creates a sculpture by adding things together until the form is complete. Unlike synapse overproduction and loss,

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