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An electrode introduced into the brain of a living animal will detect electrical activity that is generated by the neurons adjacent to the electrode tip. If the electrode is a microelectrode, with a tip size of about 1 micrometre, the electrode will usually detect the activity of at most one neuron. Recording in this way is generally called "single unit" recording. The recorded action potentials look very much like the action potentials that are recorded intracellularly, but the signals are very much smaller (typically about 1 mV). Most recordings of the activity of single neurons in anesthetized animals are made in this way, and all recordings of single neurons in conscious animals. Recordings of single neurons in living animals have provided important insights into how the brain processes information. For example, David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel recorded the activity of single neurons in the primary visual cortex of the anesthetized cat, and showed how single neurons in this area respond to very specific features of a visual stimulus. Hubel and Wiesel were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1981.
Microelectrodes used for extracellular single unit recordings are usually either glass micropipettes filled with a weak electrolyte solution similar in composition to extracellular fluid, or very fine wires that are insulated except at their extreme tip.