Single neuron binding properties and the magical number 7

Hippocampus. 2008;18(11):1122-30. doi: 10.1002/hipo.20480.


When we observe a scene, we can almost instantly recognize a familiar object or can quickly distinguish among objects differing by apparently minor details. Individual neurons in the medial temporal lobe of humans have been shown to be crucial for the recognition process, and they are selectively activated by different views of known individuals or objects. However, how single neurons could implement such a sparse and explicit code is unknown and almost impossible to investigate experimentally. Hippocampal CA1 pyramidal neurons could be instrumental in this process. Here, in an extensive series of simulations with realistic morphologies and active properties, we demonstrate how n radial (oblique) dendrites of these neurons may be used to bind n inputs to generate an output signal. The results suggest a possible neural code as the most effective n-ple of dendrites that can be used for short-term memory recollection of persons, objects, or places. Our analysis predicts a straightforward physiological explanation for the observed puzzling limit of about 7 short-term memory items that can be stored by humans.

MeSH terms

  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Neurons / physiology*