Where the Buffalo Theory gets neuroscience right (almost)

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The Buffalo Theory is a popular urban legend which holds that the neuron-nerfing quality of alcohol can boost your intelligence. The basic idea is as follows: by targeting the weakest of your brain cells, alcohol actually aids in a process of natural selection, improving the overall performance of your brain by picking off the weakest members of its neuronal herds. Now, research published in today's issue of Neuron has shown that the driving concept behind this specious hypothesis is actually more or less correct.

But don't go crack open a cold one just yet. As it turns out, alcohol has nothing to do with the validity of the Buffalo Theory. (It never does, does it?). Rather, it's the concept of competition between brain cells that it gets right. For the uninitiated, I present to you the Buffalo Theory (according to the Urban Dictionary):

A herd of buffalo can move only as fast as the slowest buffalo. When the herd is hunted, it is the slowest and weakest ones at the back that are killed first. This natural selection is good for the herd as a whole, because the general speed and health of the whole group keeps improving by the regular killing of the weakest members.

In much the same way, the human brain can only operate as fast as the slowest brain cells. Excessive intake of alcohol, we all know, kills brain cells, but naturally it attacks the slowest and weakest brain cells first. In this way regular consumption of beer eliminates the weaker brain cells, making the brain a faster and more efficient machine. That's why you always feel smarter after a few beers.


Now before we delve into the neuroscience of how this ridiculous-sounding theory turns out to be not-all-that-ridiculous, let's get some debunking out of the way:


One: Alcohol doesn't actually kill brain cells, even in alcoholics. If you want to get technical, alcohol has the potential to injure neurons, but research by scientists like Roberta J. Pentney — professor of anatomy and cell biology at the University at Buffalo (yes, Buffalo) — suggests that even this type of damage is mostly reversible.

Two: The source of the Buffalo Theory has been widely misattributed to the character Cliff Clavin from the TV show Cheers. While this is precisely the brand of wisdom that Cliff was wont to dispense on a regular basis, the theory never actually made an appearance on the show.


There. The more you know, right? Now when somebody jokingly mentions the Buffalo Theory at a bar this weekend you can be that guy. But let's get to the science.

At its core, the logic behind the Buffalo Theory sounds a lot like natural selection; the theory proposes that the weaker brain cells are out-competed by their faster, more efficient counterparts and perish as a direct result of this competition.


But when you think about it, isn't this the type of weed-out system that you'd actually want to have going on in your brain all the time? Scientists have long recognized that the formation of functional neural circuits is critical for proper brain function, especially in higher functions like learning and memory. As the brain develops, its cells extend and form connections with other cells, undergoing construction like an interstate system that links different regions of the brain in electrochemical communication. If the highways connecting different regions of your brain could be navigated more efficiently, it follows that communication between these regions would be improved. So what happens when construction on your neural highways goes awry, or when a newer, better highway comes to town? These are exactly the types of questions that were plaguing University of Michigan's Dr. Hisashi Umemori, whose research revolves around neural circuits and synapse formation.

"We wanted to know how brain circuits become more efficient during the brain's development," said Umemori. "Does the brain choose to keep good connections and get rid of the bad ones and, if so, how?"


By following this line of questioning, Dr. Umemori and his colleagues have shown for the first time how the memory circuits in our brains, like the neurons from the Buffalo Theory, refine themselves naturally through intercellular competition, without alcohol.


Umemori and his colleagues used a genetically-modified mouse model to examine how the brain goes about fine-tuning the neural connections between two of its most important regions: the hippocampus (the center for learning and memory) and the cerebral cortex (the hub of perception and awareness). The mice were modified such that specific populations of neurons involved in this connection could be switched off.

When the researchers deactivated 40 percent of the neurons in the connection, the brain proceeded to eliminate this inactive neural circuitry in favor of the neurons that had been left on. But it just so happens that brains are smart, and will actually refrain from cutting their losses when they can't determine precisely who the losers are; when the researchers deactivated all of the neurons in the connection, the brain left its connections intact.


"This tells us that the brain has a way of telling among a group of neurons which connections are better than others," explained Umemori. "The neurons are in competition with each other. So when they're all equally bad, none can be eliminated."

The researchers also investigated a region of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus, one of only two areas of your brain that generate new neurons throughout your lifetime. It was in the dentate gyrus that Dr. Umemori and his colleagues observed a second type of competition wherein newborn cells were competing with established mature cells. As with the neural connections bridging the hippocampus and cerebral cortex, the scientists found that inhibiting the dentate gyrus' ability to make new cells caused the elimination of mature cells to cease, even if the mature cells were selectively deactivated.


The team's results, which are published in today's issue of Neuron, also provide novel insight into mental illnesses associated with abnormal circuit formation in the hippocampus, including Alzheimer's disease, autism, and schizophrenia. As Umemori notes, "the better we understand how these mechanisms work, the better we'll be able to understand what's happening when they aren't working."

So there you have it: the nerdiest analysis of a misattributed Cheers quotation ever conceived. Now go forth and amaze your friends and loved ones.


Read the full scientific paper via Neuron.

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Artist's rendering of neuronal activity via
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