Celebrity Photos Help Researchers Study Brain
Images of Halle Berry and Jennifer Aniston Spark Activity in Brain Cells
June 22, 2005 -- Halle Berry and Jennifer Aniston often appear on magazine
covers, but now they're in new territory -- the pages of the journal
Nature and perhaps even your own brain.
The stars -- along with Julia Roberts and Kobe Bryant -- didn't team up for
a new movie or public service ad. Instead, their images, or even only their
names, got top billing in the latest project by Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, PhD.
Quiroga isn't a hot new director in Hollywood. He's a bioengineering
lecturer at England's University of Leicester. Quiroga worked on the study
while at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and UCLA.
Quiroga and colleagues watched single brain cells rev up when people saw
pictures of certain celebrities or famous landmarks, like the Sydney Opera
House or Italy's leaning tower of Pisa. The findings may cast brain cells in a
The researchers looked at how our brains process visual information and
long-term memory. They also looked at what role different brain regions and
cells play in decoding images.
Star Power Meets the Brain
Quiroga's study included eight epilepsy patients. All had electrodes
implanted in their brains to locate the origin of their seizures.
The study had nothing to do with epilepsy. Instead, the electrodes came in
handy for another purpose. The patients agreed to let the electrodes be used to
monitor individual brain cells or brain regions while the images were
Everyone was a bit different. They had electrodes in different parts of an
area of the brain related to memory and one of the first brain areas to falter
when Alzheimer's disease strikes.
In one person, electrode readings spiked in a single brain cell when images
related to Halle Berry came up. For another person, an electrode in a different
location fired up when pictures of Jennifer Aniston were shown. Someone else
had a brain cell that responded to images of the Sydney Opera House.
Picky, Picky, Picky
The individual brain cells were quite specific about the images to which
they responded. For instance, the cell that responded to pictures of Jennifer
Aniston couldn't care less about images that also included Brad Pitt.
The neuron fixated on Halle Berry responded to her Catwoman movie
costume and even the letters of her name. But when Catwoman images
unrelated to Berry were shown, the cell didn't take the bait. It didn't respond
the same way it had for all things Berry.
Other individual brain cells responded selectively to images of animals
(spiders, seals, or horses) or specific foods, say the researchers.
Defying a Stereotype
Obsession with celebrity wasn't the study's point. Instead, the scientists
wanted to learn more about how the brain recognizes images with lightning-fast
The findings may give the brain cell an image makeover. Apparently, brain
cells, or neurons, have been typecast incorrectly, says researcher Christof
Koch, PhD, in a news release.
"Our findings fly in the face of conventional thinking about how brain
cells function," says Koch, a Caltech professor of computation and neural
systems. "Conventional wisdom views individual brain cells as simple
switches or relays," he says. "In fact, we are finding that neurons are
able to function more like a sophisticated computer."