Ice Cream or Cake: The Brain’s Control Switch

Ethan Guthman, Ph.D. Candidate, Neuroscience Program, CU Anschutz 03/18/2019

We’ve all heard the saying that your brain is the computer of your body. And there is truth to the comparison. Like a computer cells of the brain, called neurons, take in information, process it, and send it or other signals to other neurons. The end goal is to control all the things your body needs to do, from making memories to how often you take a breath.

To do all these things, your brain needs different types of cells that can work with one another towards this goal.

The two main types of brain cells are the excitatory neurons and the inhibitory neurons. Think about them in this way -- excitatory neurons send signals that turn other neurons on (they excite them!), and the inhibitory neurons send signals that turn other neurons off (hey you, stop that!).

But who cares that we turn neurons on and off with different signaling cells? To better understand why this is important in almost every moment of your life, let’s consider a common situation. Imagine that you’ve just finished dinner, and you want dessert. You’re trying to decide between ice cream or a slice of cake. Which do you want? If you only had excitatory neurons in your brain, these neurons would turn on other neurons that would turn on other neurons and so on with nothing to stop the activity. In the end, you’d try to reach for both the ice cream and cake at the same time…and maybe try to do other completely unrelated behaviors while you’re at it!

Enter inhibitory neurons. These guys work to turn off other neurons. Once if you’ve made the decision to eat the ice cream, your excitatory neurons would turn on neurons that control the behavior of reaching towards the ice cream and your inhibitory neurons would turn off the neurons that control reaching towards the cake. With the inhibitory neurons in the game, you can successfully eat your delicious ice cream!

Recent research in neuroscience shows that inhibitory neurons help select between specific behaviors. There is even a growing body of work that shows that they have control over the formation of memories. Dedicated research on these very cool cells is only in its infancy, and there’s still a lot we don’t know. But it’s an “excitatory” time for learning about your brain, and who knows what we’ll discover next!

A Taste of Life, Right to Your Inbox