Best Way To Describe Neuron Shape?

Standardizing Neuronal Morphology Models

Neurons come in many shapes and sizes. Frequently, the shape of a neuron is characteristic to its type. Several theoretical papers have demonstrated that the shape of a neuron can crucially determine its pattern of activity, independently of other factors (Mainen & Sejnowski, 1996, for example). Several resources on the web such as neuromorpho.org and the Cell Centered Database are dedicated to maintaining repositories of different neuronal shapes (also known as morphologies).

Any computer scientist worth their salt, noticing this trend, is tempted to say: if neuronal shape is so important, maybe we ought to have good data standards to describe it. That’s just what a paper last year did. It surveyed the popular data standards for modeling, primarily in the NEURON and Genesis simulation packages. The result is a data standard called MorphML, which is part of a larger effort called NeuroML.

Neuronal shape is a weird data type for the computer science world, but I think an incredibly important and fundamental one for deeply coping with the complexity of real brain tissue. It seems to me that many areas of neuroscience research could benefit from the construction of more explicit models of the circuits they study.

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