In this age of hoverboards and 3-D-printed food, you might think scientists would have no trouble understanding our internal organs. In fact, our bodies are so complicated that even mapping the topography of the human brain has been quite a challenge. Now, at least, we’re one step closer, as researchers have created the most comprehensive brain map yet. They published their findings in the journal Nature.
Part of the difficulty of mapping the brain lies in its astonishing complexity and sophistication. In order to understand the brain as a whole, scientists need to consider different types of measurements at once. Yet, until now, most brain maps have only considered one element (like cell density or changes in blood flow) at a time. A new paradigm was in order, and so an international team of neuroscientists set out to create one.
They started by pulling brain scan data on 210 healthy young participants in the Human Connectome Project, or HCP. The government-funded HCP is a five-year project that aims to advance scientific understanding of our connectome—the links and pathways inside our brains. Each participant’s file included measurements of the thickness of their cortex; brain function; connections between brain regions; the landscape and orientation of brain cells; and levels of an essential fatty compound called myelin.
By overlaying all of these measurements and looking for patterns, the researchers were able to build a richly detailed diagram of the brain’s many sections. In addition to correctly locating 83 already known regions, the new map also identified another 97 that had never before been spotted. The team then tested out the new technique on the brain scans of another 210 participants to ensure the map was accurate. They found that, like the human body as a whole, there was substantial variation in the size of different parts, but the overall layout was consistent.
The researchers are quite pleased with their findings, but are hardly going to sit back and put their feet up, said lead author Mathew Glasser of Washington University Medical School.
“We’re thinking of this as version 1.0,” Glasser told Nature. “That doesn’t mean it’s the final version, but it’s a far better map than the ones we’ve had before.”
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