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Trends Neurosci. 2013 Oct;36(10):579-86. doi: 10.1016/j.tins.2013.06.005. Epub 2013 Jul 19.

Challenges of understanding brain function by selective modulation of neuronal subpopulations.

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Bernstein Center Freiburg (BCF), and Neurobiology and Biophysics, Faculty of Biology, University of Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany. Electronic address:


Neuronal networks confront researchers with an overwhelming complexity of interactions between their elements. A common approach to understanding neuronal processing is to reduce complexity by defining subunits and infer their functional role by selectively modulating them. However, this seemingly straightforward approach may lead to confusing results if the network exhibits parallel pathways leading to recurrent connectivity. We demonstrate limits of the selective modulation approach and argue that, even though highly successful in some instances, the approach fails in networks with complex connectivity. We argue to refine experimental techniques by carefully considering the structural features of the neuronal networks involved. Such methods could dramatically increase the effectiveness of selective modulation and may lead to a mechanistic understanding of principles underlying brain function.

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