It is not often that I encounter a scientific article that excites me, but the article published by Rodrigo Quiroga in Nature Reviews Neuroscience (August 2012, Volume 13, 587-597) did just that. In his article, Quiroga describes his discovery of Jennifer Aniston neurons in the medial temporal lobes of human patients. These neurons are interesting to biopsychologists because they likely play a major role in certain kinds of human memory, but I think that just about anybody would find them interesting: Few things are more fascinating to humans than the human brain, and Jennifer Aniston neurons are particularly cool.
Quiroga got the opportunity to record neural activity from neurons in the medial temporal lobes (hippocampus, amygdala, medial temporal cortex) of patients who were suffering from severe epilepsy. Prior to the surgical removal of their epileptic foci, electrodes were implanted in their medial temporal lobes to precisely locate the foci. This provided Quiroga and his colleagues with the opportunity to study the response patterns of these neurons.
Remarkably, these neurons responded to concepts rather than to the particulars of stimuli. For example, one of the first neurons to be investigated responded to 7 different photos of Jennifer Aniston, but did not respond to photos of 80 other people or objects. Many more neurons of this type have now been identified: for example, neurons have been identified that selectively respond the Halle Berry, the Sydney Opera House, Diego Maradona, and mother Theresa. Remarkably, these neurons also responded to the printed and spoken names of the particular concepts that they encoded, not just photographs of them. These various human temporal lobe concept neurons have been termed “Jennifer Aniston neurons” after the first such neuron to be discovered.
Quiroga emphasized two points about the selectivity of various Jennifer Aniston neurons. First, it is clear that there is more than one neuron in each brain encoding a particular concept. It has been estimated that humans have concepts for 10,000 to 30,000 things, and if only one neuron responded to each, it is unlikely that the particular neuron that responded to a concept could be identified during the time allowed for testing. Second, it has been discovered that although each Jennifer Aniston neuron is not totally selective. For example, it was subsequently discovered that the neuron that responded to Jennifer Aniston also responded to another person: Lisa Kudrow, Jennifer Aniston’s co-star in the well-known television series, “Friends.”
The discovery of Jennifer Aniston neurons clearly ranks as an important neuroscientific discovery: it is a striking example of how experience influences brain function, and it provides important clues about how the human brain retains concepts. Also, the idea that a single neuron can respond reliably to the image of a particular person or to the sound or sight of her name is thought provoking–a good topic of conversation among friends.
Be that as it may, I must admit that the name itself played an important role in attracting my interest in Jennifer Aniston neurons: Not many neuroscientific phenomena are named after television or movie personalities. Using Jennifer Aniston’s name for human medial temporal lobe concept neurons is good fun—and I have never found fun and good science to be mutually exclusive. More importantly, this name is easy to remember and immediately reminds every one of the observations that led to the discovery. Thus, generations of students and scientists will benefit from the name.
I wonder whether Jennifer Aniston knows that an important class of human neurons is named after her. If she does, does she fully appreciate their significance?