Getting to know our brain better and better

A detailed new map by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis lays out the landscape of the cerebral cortex. The 180 areas delineated and identified in both left and right hemispheres are displayed on inflated and flattened cortical surfaces. Black outlines indicate areal borders. Colors indicate the extent to which the areas are associated in the resting state with auditory (red), somatosensory (green), visual (blue), task positive (towards white), or task negative (towards black) groups of areas. The legend on the bottom right illustrates the 3D color space used in the figure. . Credit: Matthew F. Glasser et al./Nature

The Human Connectome project is making ways in identifying the connectivity paths in our brain. Most recently it has released the most accurate brain map ever, so far.

New technologies are making possible to create unprecedented images of the brain, however its complexity is challenging the very idea of "mapping". For almost 200 year researchers have identified areas that are different in structure, in neurones types and in type of functionality. 

However, the more they know, the fuzzier the picture becomes. It turns out that in any given area there are several types of neurones (and more types are discovered as time goes by), connectivity permeates the whole brain and is subject to (minor) changes in different brains. Moreover, functionality is at best "prevalent" in an area, but it is also spread out through the brain. Hence the difficulty in identifying an area and its boundary.

The Human Connectome project has released a most sophisticated partition of the brain in 180 areas, taking into account the connectivity structure, the physical differences (like the thickness of the cortex), the variety of responses to stimuli (like vision, aural....), by comparing 1,200 human brains. Take a look at the video clip.

Sometimes the brain is being compared to a computer but in the brain it is impossible to distinguish between software and hardware, between processing and memory. The neurones and their connectivity structure is at the same time the processing engine and the operating systems, but it is also the vertical applications (like image recognition: it depends on processing -signals among neurones- but also on the wiring, and the wiring evolves over time as we learn to recognise certain pattern...).

The identification of the 180 areas has been based on a huge variety of data gathered by the Human Connectome project that have been processed by data mining algorithm that was able to draw crisp boundaries around each area.

The hope of the scientists that have published the new map on an article on Nature, along with a 200 pages detailed description of the 180 areas, is that this may serve as a starting point for exploration of the brain in the coming years, like the ever more perfected maps of the world in the XV century paved the way to the age of discovery.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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