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Mar 22, 2017 10:27 AM EDT

Stanford Researchers Find Cerebellum's Unknown Function

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Researchers from Stanford University have discovered more functions that the cerebellum is in charge of. This came after they conducted a series of experiments which were published in the journal "Nature."

It has previously been known that the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain," helps with a person's balancing and breathing. This latest discovery found neurons within the cerebellum that respond to and learn to anticipate rewards.

This, according to MedicalXpress, is the first step toward gaining more understanding of the cerebellum. This is expected to open up new research for neuroscientists to study the roots of cognition.

Liqun Luo, the paper's senior author and a professor of biology and member of Stanford Bio-X and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, said that the cerebellum also helped control muscles. This was demonstrated in patients who had motor coordination defect when they experienced disruption in that part of the brain.

Science Alert noted that there have been speculations on the cerebellum's connection to cognitive processes like attention and language function. However, previous research has only linked granule cells to basic sensory and motor functions.

Scientists have had difficulty in studying the larger role of the cerebellum because of the challenges that its neurons pose. These neurons, known as granule cells, make up 80 percent of the neurons in the brain and are all packed into the cerebellum, taking up about 10 percent of its volume.

Mark Wagner, a postdoctoral fellow in Luo's lab, initially wanted to study how the cerebellum controls muscles in mice. He used a new technique that allowed him to record granule cells in real time.

The method, named two-photon calcium imaging, had the right resolution that Wagner needed to study mouse granule cells. He gave mice sugar water about a second after pushing a little lever, to reward them.

Wagner found that some granule cells fired up when the mice moved. What's more interesting, though, is when other granule cells also fired up when the subjects were waiting for their rewards.

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