Most detailed brain map to date could cure serious mental illnesses

A detailed new map lays out the landscape of the cerebral vortex
Matthew Glasser and Eric Young
A detailed new map lays out the landscape of the cerebral vortex

Original news release was issued by the Washington University School of Medicine, written by Tamara Bhandari

Humans are an extraordinary species. Since the dawn of our existence, we continue to explore the world, trying to understand every single motion, scent, color, behavior. Curiosity is the engine that drives us forward. We are the cartographers, fueled by eagerness, mapping everything that we encounter and giving reason as to why phenomenons happen the way they do. By understanding the world, we strive to understand ourselves.

In this day and age, with the technology and dedication at our disposal, there isn’t that much left of our world to be explored. In the last few decades, humankind began to dig deeper, observing the things at the core of its being. We appear to understand the natural stream of life. But there still remains an area largely uncharted. Just like the stretched-out regions of outer space with vast ocean of stars, there exist billions upon billions of neurons in the Central Processing Unit, our CPU that each and every one of us possesses: The brain.

Even though the brain cartography might look the same, the regions left obscured host still many unexplored areas that need to be understood. The new map, developed by researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, features the typical brain in painstaking detail.

The authors of this paper used a custom-built MRI machine to map the brains of 1,200 young adults. The new map divides both the left and right cerebral hemispheres into 180 areas based on physical differences.

The software — how the brain works — is intimately correlated with the brain’s structure — its hardware, so to speak. If you want to find out what the brain can do, you have to understand how it is organized and wired.” says Van Essen, the Alumni Endowed Professor of Neuroscience.

The researchers took a closer look at the brain cortex, a layer of neural tissue that encases the rest of the brain like a crumpled sheet of paper. First mapping of the human cortex was conducted in the first decade of the 20th century by a German neuroanatomist, Korbinian Brodmann, who identified 50 regions. This map, however, proved to be outdated in the works of the new study’s lead author, Matthew Glasser, PhD, who began studying the connections between language areas of the brain almost a century later.

To create a new map, Glasser, Van Essen, and colleagues pooled data from 210 healthy young adults of both sexes. They ended up with 180 areas in each hemisphere but don’t expect that to be the final number. They found a patch of cortex that probably could be subdivided and believe that researchers in the future will be able to do so.

In the century between Brodmann’s map and Glasser and Van Essen’s, many other maps of the cortex have been drawn, showing anywhere between 50 to 200 different areas. The researchers improved on previous maps by precisely aligning the brains to a common coordinate system before analysis, using an algorithm developed by colleagues at Oxford University, and incorporating the highest-quality MRI data available.

The researchers verified that their method could be applied to individuals by producing maps of the brains, unique to each one of the 210 young adults. “In the past, it was not always clear whether the results from two separate neuroimaging studies referred to the same area or not,” Glasser says.

Better individual maps of the brains could prove to be very useful, spanning treatment for neurological or psychiatric illnesses or personalized treatment for different types of dementia. Understanding the brain and making discoveries what regions shut down, or better yet, light up under certain circumstances, may lead to revolution in treatment for numerous diseases, for which there is still no effective cure.



Michal Madaras

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