Cells 'Recognize' Famous People
Brain Cells 'Recognize' Halle Berry, Other Celebrities,
By MALCOLM RITTER
June 23, 2005
NEW YORK Jun 23, 2005 — Halle Berry? Jennifer Aniston?
Everybody knows them. And now a surprising study finds
that even individual cells in your brain act as if they
The work could help shed light on how the
brain stores information, an expert said.
When scientists sampled brain cell activity
in people who were scrutinizing dozens of pictures, they
found some individual cells that reacted to a particular
celebrity, landmark, animal or object.
In one case, a single cell was activated
by different photos of Berry, including some in her "Catwoman"
costume, a drawing of her and even the words, "Halle
The findings appear in a part of the brain
that transforms what people perceive into what they'll
eventually remember, said Dr. Itzhak Fried of the University
of California, Los Angeles, a senior investigator on the
The findings do not mean that a particular
person or object is recognized and remembered by only
one brain cell, Fried said. "There is not only one
cell that codes for Jennifer Aniston. That would be impossible,"
Nor do they mean that a given brain cell
will react to only one person or object, he said, because
the study participants were tested with only a relatively
limited number of pictures. In fact, some cells were found
to respond to more than one person, or to a person and
What the study does suggest, Fried and colleagues
say in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, is that
the brain appears to use relatively few cells to record
something it sees. That's in contrast to the idea that
it uses a huge network of brain cells instead.
It's surprising that an individual neuron
would react so specifically to a given person, said the
study's other senior investigator, Christof Koch of the
California Institute of Technology. "It's much more
specific than people used to think."
Charles Connor, who studies how the brain
processes visual information but who didn't participate
in the new study, called the results striking.
Nobody would have predicted that conceptual
information relating to Aniston, for example, would be
signaled so clearly by single cells, said Connor, who
works at Johns Hopkins University.
The "really dramatic finding,"
he said, is that a single brain cell can respond so consistently
to completely different pictures of a given person. "That
will surprise everybody," Connor said.
The part of the brain the researchers studied
draws heavily on memory as well as signals from what the
eye sees, so the result may illustrate how memory is represented
in the brain and how it relates to visual signals, he
He noted that in one participant, one brain
cell responded both to Aniston and to Lisa Kudrow, her
co-star on the TV hit "Friends."
"That's a tantalizing glimpse at how
neurons represent concepts like membership in the cast
of `Friends,' and could lead to much more extensive studies
of how conceptual information is organized in human memory,"
The researchers tested eight people with
epilepsy who'd had electrodes placed in their brains so
that doctors could track down the origins of their seizures.
The electrodes monitored the activity of a small fraction
of cells in a part of the brain called the medial temporal
The researchers kept track of which cells
became activated as the participants looked at images
of people, landmarks and objects on a laptop computer.
One participant had a brain cell that reacted to different
pictures of Aniston, for example, but was not strongly
stimulated by other famous or non-famous faces.
Oddly, when that participant was shown photos
of Aniston paired with actor Brad Pitt, from whom Aniston
later separated, the brain cell didn't respond.
"I don't know if it was a prophetic
thing," Fried said.
Original source: http://abcnews.go.com