Throughout evolution, individual cells have been making successful decisions on their own, even while forming parts of vast networks, such as neurons and glia in the human brain. Now scientists from the EPFL Blue Brain Project and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) have published a new theory describing a secret language that cells may use for internal dialog about the external world.

Using a computational model, they hypothesize that metabolic pathways, which are primarily a means of extracting energy and building block molecules from glucose and other substrates to feed the brain, might also be capable of coding details about neuromodulators that stimulate increases in energy consumption. If true, this would open the door to a nearly infinite number of possibilities for information processing in nervous systems as component cells could compute in previously unexplored ways. Such a mechanism would also help explain the remarkable energy efficiency of brains.