Chapter 2. Cells and Structures: The Anatomy of the Nervous System

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By Matthew Hutson Earlier this month, a computer program called AlphaGo defeated a (human) world champion of the board game Go, years before most experts expected computers to rival the best flesh-and-bone players. But then last week, Microsoft was forced to silence its millennial-imitating chatbot Tay for blithely parroting Nazi propaganda and misogynistic attacks after just one day online, her failure a testimony to the often underestimated role of human sensibility in intelligent behavior. Why are we so compelled to pit human against machine, and why are we so bad at predicting the outcome? As the number of jobs susceptible to automation rises, and as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates warn that artificial intelligence poses an existential threat to humanity, it’s natural to wonder how humans measure up to our future robot overlords. But even those tracking technology’s progress in taking on human skills have a hard time setting an accurate date for the uprising. That’s in part because one prediction strategy popular among both scientists and journalists—benchmarking the human brain with digital metrics such as bits, hertz, and million instructions per section, or MIPS—is severely misguided. And doing so could warp our expectations of what technology can do for us and to us. Since their development, digital computers have become a standard metaphor for the mind and brain. The comparison makes sense, in that brains and computers both transform input into output. Most human brains, like computers, can also manipulate abstract symbols. (Think arithmetic or language processing.) But like any metaphor, this one has limitations.

Keyword: Brain imaging; Robotics
Link ID: 22052 - Posted: 03.31.2016

By Emily Underwood This tangle of wiry filaments is not a bird’s nest or a root system. Instead, it’s the largest map to date of the connections between brain cells—in this case, about 200 from a mouse’s visual cortex. To map the roughly 1300 connections, or synapses, between the cells, researchers used an electron microscope to take millions of nanoscopic pictures from a speck of tissue not much bigger than a dust mite, carved into nearly 3700 slices. Then, teams of “annotators” traced the spindly projections of the synapses, digitally stitching stacked slices together to form the 3D map. The completed map reveals some interesting clues about how the mouse brain is wired: Neurons that respond to similar visual stimuli, such as vertical or horizontal bars, are more likely to be connected to one another than to neurons that carry out different functions, the scientists report online today in Nature. (In the image above, some neurons are color-coded according to their sensitivity to various line orientations.) Ultimately, by speeding up and automating the process of mapping such networks in both mouse and human brain tissue, researchers hope to learn how the brain’s structure enables us to sense, remember, think, and feel. © 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 22041 - Posted: 03.29.2016

By BENEDICT CAREY BEDFORD, Mass. — In a small room banked by refrigerators of preserved brains, a pathologist held a specimen up to the light in frank admiration. Then it was time to cut — once in half and then a thick slice from the back, the tissue dense and gray-pink, teeming with folds and swirls. It was the brain of a professional running back. “There,” said Dr. Ann McKee, the chief of neuropathology at the V.A. Boston Healthcare System and a professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University’s medical school, pointing to a key area that had an abnormal separation. “That’s one thing we look for right away.” Over the past several years, Dr. McKee’s lab, housed in a pair of two-story brick buildings in suburban Boston, has repeatedly made headlines by revealing that deceased athletes, including at least 90 former N.F.L. players, were found to have had a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., that is believed to cause debilitating memory and mood problems. This month, after years of denying or playing down a connection, a top N.F.L. official acknowledged at a hearing in Washington that playing football and having C.T.E. were “certainly” linked. His statement effectively ended a very public dispute over whether head blows sustained while playing football are associated with the disorder. But it will not resolve a quieter debate among scientists about how much risk each football player has of developing it, or answer questions about why some players seem far more vulnerable to it than others. Some researchers worry that the rising drumbeat of C.T.E. diagnoses is far outpacing scientific progress in pinpointing the symptoms, risks and prevalence of the disease. The American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology, an organization of brain injury specialists, is preparing a public statement to point out that much of the science of C.T.E. is still unsettled and to contend that the evidence to date should not be interpreted to mean that parents must keep their children off sports teams, officials of the group say. © 2016 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Brain Injury/Concussion; Brain imaging
Link ID: 22040 - Posted: 03.28.2016

By Simon Makin Brain implants have been around for decades—stimulating motor areas to alleviate Parkinson's disease symptoms, for example—but until now they have all suffered from the same limitation: because brains move slightly during physical activity and as we breathe and our heart beats, rigid implants rub and damage tissue. This means that eventually, because of both movement and scar-tissue formation, they lose contact with the cells they were monitoring. Now a group of researchers, led by chemist Charles Lieber of Harvard University, has overcome these problems using a fine, flexible mesh. In 2012 the team showed that cells could be grown around such a mesh, but that left the problem of how to get one inside a living brain. The solution the scientists devised was to draw the mesh—measuring a few millimeters wide—into a syringe, so it would roll up like a scroll inside the 100-micron-wide needle, and inject it through a hole in the skull. In a study published in Nature Nanotechnology last year, the team injected meshes studded with 16 electrodes into two brain regions in mice. The mesh is composed of extremely thin, nanoscale polymer threads, sparsely distributed so that 95 percent of it is empty space. It has a level of flexibility similar to brain tissue. “You're starting to make this nonliving system look like the biological system you're trying to probe,” Lieber explains. “That's been the goal of my group's work, to blur the distinction between electronics as we know it and the computer inside our heads.” © 2016 Scientific American

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 21950 - Posted: 03.03.2016

Story by Amy Ellis Nutt She relaxed in the recliner, her eyes closed, her hands resting lightly in her lap. The psychiatrist’s assistant made small talk while pushing the woman’s hair this way and that, dabbing her head with spots of paste before attaching the 19 electrodes to her scalp. In the struggle over the future of psychiatry, researchers are looking deep within the brain to understand mental illness and find new therapeutic tools. As the test started, her anxiety ticked up. And that’s when it began: the sensation of being locked in a vise. First, she couldn’t move. Then she was shrinking, collapsing in on herself like some human black hole. It was a classic panic attack — captured in vivid color on the computer screen that psychiatrist Hasan Asif was watching. “It’s going to be okay,” he said, his voice quiet and soothing. “Just stay with it.” The images playing out in front of him were entirely unexpected; this clearly wasn’t a resting state for his patient. With each surge of anxiety, a splotch of red bloomed on the computer screen. Excessive activity of high-energy brain waves near the top of her head indicated hyper-arousal and stress. Decreased activity in the front of her brain, where emotions are managed, showed she couldn’t summon the resources to keep calm.

Keyword: Depression; Brain imaging
Link ID: 21932 - Posted: 02.25.2016

Laura Sanders In a multivirus competition, a newcomer came out on top for its ability to transport genetic cargo to a mouse’s brain cells. The engineered virus AAV-PHP.B was best at delivering a gene that instructed Purkinje cells, the dots in the micrograph above, to take on a whitish glow. Unaffected surrounding cells in the mouse cerebellum look blue. Cargo carried by viruses like AAV-PHP.B could one day replace faulty genes in the brains of people. AAV-PHP.B beat out other viruses including a similar one called AAV9, which is already used to get genes into the brains of mice. Genes delivered by AAV-PHP.B also showed up in the spinal cord, retina and elsewhere in the body, Benjamin Deverman of Caltech and colleagues report in the February Nature Biotechnology. Similar competitions could uncover viruses with the ability to deliver genes to specific types of cells, the researchers write. Selective viruses that can also get into the brain would enable deeper studies of the brain and might improve gene therapy techniques in people. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2016

Keyword: Brain imaging; Genes & Behavior
Link ID: 21923 - Posted: 02.23.2016

By NATALIE ANGIER Whether to enliven a commute, relax in the evening or drown out the buzz of a neighbor’s recreational drone, Americans listen to music nearly four hours a day. In international surveys, people consistently rank music as one of life’s supreme sources of pleasure and emotional power. We marry to music, graduate to music, mourn to music. Every culture ever studied has been found to make music, and among the oldest artistic objects known are slender flutes carved from mammoth bone some 43,000 years ago — 24,000 years before the cave paintings of Lascaux. Given the antiquity, universality and deep popularity of music, many researchers had long assumed that the human brain must be equipped with some sort of music room, a distinctive piece of cortical architecture dedicated to detecting and interpreting the dulcet signals of song. Yet for years, scientists failed to find any clear evidence of a music-specific domain through conventional brain-scanning technology, and the quest to understand the neural basis of a quintessential human passion foundered. Now researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have devised a radical new approach to brain imaging that reveals what past studies had missed. By mathematically analyzing scans of the auditory cortex and grouping clusters of brain cells with similar activation patterns, the scientists have identified neural pathways that react almost exclusively to the sound of music — any music. It may be Bach, bluegrass, hip-hop, big band, sitar or Julie Andrews. A listener may relish the sampled genre or revile it. No matter. When a musical passage is played, a distinct set of neurons tucked inside a furrow of a listener’s auditory cortex will fire in response. Other sounds, by contrast — a dog barking, a car skidding, a toilet flushing — leave the musical circuits unmoved. Nancy Kanwisher and Josh H. McDermott, professors of neuroscience at M.I.T., and their postdoctoral colleague Sam Norman-Haignere reported their results in the journal Neuron. The findings offer researchers a new tool for exploring the contours of human musicality. © 2016 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Hearing; Brain imaging
Link ID: 21873 - Posted: 02.09.2016

By Jonathan Webb Science reporter, BBC News Scientists have reproduced the wrinkled shape of a human brain using a simple gel model with two layers. They made a solid replica of a foetal brain, still smooth and unfolded, and coated it with a second layer which expanded when dunked into a solvent. That expansion produced a network of furrows that was remarkably similar to the pattern seen in a real human brain. This suggests that brain folds are caused by physics: the outer part grows faster than the rest, and crumples. Such straightforward, mechanical buckling is one of several proposed explanations for the distinctive twists and turns of the brain's outermost blanket of cells, called the "cortex". Alternatively, researchers have suggested that biochemical signals might trigger expansion and contraction in particular parts of the sheet, or that the folds arise because of stronger connections between specific areas. "There have been several hypotheses, but the challenge has been that they are difficult to test experimentally," said Tuomas Tallinen, a soft matter physicist at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland and a co-author of the study, which appears in Nature Physics. "I think it's very significant... that we can actually recreate the folding process using this quite simple, physical model." Humans are one of just a few animals - among them whales, pigs and some other primates - that possess these iconic undulations. In other creatures, and early in development, the cortex is smooth. The replica in the study was based on an MRI brain scan from a 22-week-old foetus - the stage just before folds usually appear. © 2016 BBC.

Keyword: Development of the Brain
Link ID: 21848 - Posted: 02.02.2016

By Neuroskeptic We’ve learned this week that computers can play Go. But at least there’s one human activity they will never master: neuroscience. A computer will never be a neuroscientist. Except… hang on. A new paper just out in Neuroimage describes something called The Automatic Neuroscientist. Oh. So what is this new neuro-robot? According to its inventors, Romy Lorenz and colleagues of Imperial College London, it’s a framework for using “real-time fMRI in combination with modern machine-learning techniques to automatically design the optimal experiment to evoke a desired target brain state.” It works like this. You put someone in an MRI scanner and start an fMRI sequence to record their brain activity. The Automatic Neuroscientist (TAN) shows them a series of different stimuli (e.g. images or sounds) and measures the neural responses. It then learns which stimuli activate different parts of the brain, and works out the best stimuli in order to elicit a particular target pattern of brain activity (which is specified at the outset.) This is not an entirely new idea as Lorenz et al. acknowledge, but they say that theirs is the first general framework. Lorenz et al. conducted a proof-of-concept study in which they asked TAN to maximize the difference in brain activity between the lateral occipital cortex (LOC) and superior temporal cortex, by presenting visual and auditory stimuli of varying levels of complexity.

Keyword: Brain imaging; Robotics
Link ID: 21841 - Posted: 02.01.2016

By Simon Makin Multi-color image of whole brain for brain imaging research. This image was created using a computer image processing program (called SUMA), which is used to make sense of data generated by functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health Understanding how brains work is one of the greatest scientific challenges of our times, but despite the impression sometimes given in the popular press, researchers are still a long way from some basic levels of understanding. A project recently funded by the Obama administration's BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative is one of several approaches promising to deliver novel insights by developing new tools that involves a marriage of nanotechnology and optics. There are close to 100 billion neurons in the human brain. Researchers know a lot about how these individual cells behave, primarily through “electrophysiology,” which involves sticking fine electrodes into cells to record their electrical activity. We also know a fair amount about the gross organization of the brain into partially specialized anatomical regions, thanks to whole-brain imaging technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measure how blood oxygen levels change as regions that work harder demand more oxygen to fuel metabolism. We know little, however, about how the brain is organized into distributed “circuits” that underlie faculties like, memory or perception. And we know even less about how, or even if, cells are arranged into “local processors” that might act as components in such networks. © 2016 Scientific American

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 21840 - Posted: 02.01.2016

Tash Reith-Banks I discovered Rob Newman’s comedy when I was 16. His shows were relentless: packed full of quotes, arguments, anger, history, philosophy and, above all, bladder-ruining laughs. Oil, urban angst, war, climate change and capitalism – Newman tore into all of these subject and more with verve, wit, and what must have been a well-used library card. Twenty years on his latest piece, The Brain Show, finds Newman on good form. He’s less angry young man, more genial, worried uncle. The laughs are still very much there, perhaps a shade gentler. One thing is still guaranteed: you’ll leave with a brain significantly fuller than before and a long reading list. The show itself majors on a sceptical look at neuroscience, especially what Newman sees as attempts to reduce the human brain to the status of a “wet computer”. He pours particular scorn on two experiments aimed at portioning the brain into neat, discrete emotional zones; he feels similarly about geneticists who think they can identify a homelessness gene, or one for low-voter turnout. Brian Cox gets a special mention for being a figurehead for lazily generalised science, with a wicked impression of Cox walking an audience through the growing and evolving human brain. Robert Newman: The Brain Show review – chewy neuro-comedy Dissing bad science, capitalists and Brian Cox, Robert Newman’s low-octane cabinet of neuroscientific curiosities has nonconformist bite As Newman later pointed out to me, citing Stephen Jay Gould: “the world we make, makes us. Cro-Magnon had the same brain as us, possibly slightly larger. Everything we’ve done since then has been the product of evolution on a brain of unvarying capacity.” © 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited

Keyword: Brain imaging; Miscellaneous
Link ID: 21819 - Posted: 01.25.2016

Finding out what’s going on in an injured brain can involve several rounds of surgery, exposed wounds and a mess of wires. Perhaps not for much longer. A device the size of a grain of rice can monitor the brain’s temperature and pressure before dissolving without a trace. “This fully degradable sensor is definitely an impressive feat of engineering,” says Frederik Claeyssens, a biomaterials scientist at the University of Sheffield, UK. The device is the latest creation from John Rogers’s lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They came up with the idea of a miniature dissolvable brain monitor after speaking to neurosurgeons about the difficulties of monitoring brain temperature and pressure in people with traumatic injuries. Unwieldy wires These vital signs are currently measured via an implanted sensor connected to an external monitor. “It works, but the wires coming out of the head limit physical movement and provide a nidus for infection. You can cause additional damage when you pull them out,” says Rogers. It would be better to use a wireless device that doesn’t need to be extracted, he says. So Rogers’s team developed an electronic monitor about a tenth of a millimetre wide and a millimetre long made of silicon and a polymer. These materials, used in tiny amounts, are eventually broken down by the body, and don’t trigger any harmful effects, says Rogers. “The materials individually are safe. The total amount is very small. It’s about 1000 times less than what you’d have in a vitamin tablet.” © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 21799 - Posted: 01.19.2016

By Francine Russo Some children insist, from the moment they can speak, that they are not the gender indicated by their biological sex. So where does this knowledge reside? And is it possible to discern a genetic or anatomical basis for transgender identity? Exploration of these questions is relatively new, but there is a bit of evidence for a genetic basis. Identical twins are somewhat more likely than fraternal twins to both be trans. Male and female brains are, on average, slightly different in structure, although there is tremendous individual variability. Several studies have looked for signs that transgender people have brains more similar to their experienced gender. Spanish investigators—led by psychobiologist Antonio Guillamon of the National Distance Education University in Madrid and neuropsychologist Carme Junqué Plaja of the University of Barcelona—used MRI to examine the brains of 24 female-to-males and 18 male-to-females—both before and after treatment with cross-sex hormones. Their results, published in 2013, showed that even before treatment the brain structures of the trans people were more similar in some respects to the brains of their experienced gender than those of their natal gender. For example, the female-to-male subjects had relatively thin subcortical areas (these areas tend to be thinner in men than in women). Male-to-female subjects tended to have thinner cortical regions in the right hemisphere, which is characteristic of a female brain. (Such differences became more pronounced after treatment.) “Trans people have brains that are different from males and females, a unique kind of brain,” Guillamon says. “It is simplistic to say that a female-to-male transgender person is a female trapped in a male body. It's not because they have a male brain but a transsexual brain.” Of course, behavior and experience shape brain anatomy, so it is impossible to say if these subtle differences are inborn. © 2015 Scientific American

Keyword: Sexual Behavior; Brain imaging
Link ID: 21720 - Posted: 12.24.2015

When anticonvulsant drugs fail to control epilepsy, surgery can be used as a last resort: removing the part of the brain thought to be the source of someone’s seizures. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work. A computer model of brain activity could change things for the better by allowing surgeons to more precisely tailor the procedure to the individual. Seizures are caused by sudden surges in electrical activity in the brain. EEG scans made during a seizure can capture what is going on, providing a clue to the part of the brain that needs to be cut out. Even so, the surgery still fails to prevent seizures in 30 per cent of cases. There are other ways to track down the source of someone’s seizures, however. For example, the connectivity of the brain’s neurons and the surface area of affected regions is different in people with epilepsy compared with those who do not have the condition. Frances Hutchings at Newcastle University, UK and her colleagues have shown that these differences can be picked up using a combination of fMRI scans and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). They used this data to model the brains of 22 people with epilepsy. By simulating the brain’s electrical activity, they were able to see where it went awry and identify the region where seizures were most likely to originate in each individual. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Epilepsy; Brain imaging
Link ID: 21701 - Posted: 12.15.2015

The road map of conscious awareness has been deciphered. Now that we know which brain pathways control whether someone is awake or unconscious, we may be able to rouse people from a vegetative or minimally conscious state. In 2007, researchers used deep brain stimulation to wake a man from a minimally conscious state. It was quite remarkable, says Jin Lee at Stanford University in California. The 38-year-old had suffered a severe brain injury in a street mugging six years earlier. Before his treatment he was unable to communicate and had no voluntary control over his limbs. When doctors stimulated his thalamus – a central hub that sends signals all around the brain – his speech and movement gradually returned. However, attempts to treat other people in a similar way have failed. The problem lies with the crudeness of the technique. “Deep brain stimulation is done without much knowledge of how it actually alters the circuits in the brain,” says Lin. The technique involves attaching electrodes to the brain and using them to stimulate the tissue beneath. Unfortunately, the electrodes can also stimulate unintended areas, which means it is hard to work out exactly what is happening in people’s brains. “There are a lot of fibres and different cells in the thalamus and working out what was going on in the brain was very difficult,” says Lin. “So we wanted to figure it out.” © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Consciousness; Brain imaging
Link ID: 21695 - Posted: 12.12.2015

Laura Sanders You can thank your parents for your funny-looking hippocampus. Genes influence the three-dimensional shape of certain brain structures, scientists report in a paper posted online December 1 at bioRxiv.org. Showing a new way that genes help sculpt the brain opens up more ways to explore how the brain develops and operates. Earlier work linked genes to simple measurements of brain structures, such as overall volume or length. The new work goes beyond that by mathematically analyzing complex 3-D shapes and tying those shapes to a particular genetic makeup. A team led by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School analyzed MRI brain scans and genome data from 1,317 healthy young adults. Particular genetic profiles influenced the 3-D shape of structures including the hippocampus, caudate and cerebellum, the scientists found. In some brains, for instance, genes played a role in making the seahorse-shaped right hippocampus skinnier on the top and wider on the bottom. Genes also influenced whether the tail of the caudate was short or long. Quirks of brain structure shapes might play a role in disorders such as schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder and bipolar disorder, which are known to be influenced by genes, the authors write. Citations T. Ge et al. Heritability of neuroanatomical shape. bioRxiv.org. Posted December 1, 2015. doi: 10.1101/033407. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015

Keyword: Genes & Behavior; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 21692 - Posted: 12.12.2015

Sara Reardon Manipulating brain circuits with light and drugs can cause ripple effects that could muddy experimental results. In the tightly woven networks of the brain, tugging one neuronal thread can unravel numerous circuits. Because of that, the authors of a paper1 published in Nature on 9 December caution that techniques such as optogenetics — activating neurons with light to control brain circuits — and manipulation with drugs could lead researchers to jump to unwarranted conclusions. In work with rats and zebra finches, neuroscientist Bence Ölveczky of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and his team found that stimulating one part of the brain to induce certain behaviours might cause other, unrelated parts to fire simultaneously, and so make it seem as if these circuits are also involved in the behaviour. According to Ölveczky, the experiments suggest that although techniques such as optogenetics may show that a circuit can perform a function, they do not necessarily show that it normally performs that function. “I don’t want to say other studies have been wrong, but there is a danger to overinterpreting,” he says. Ölveczky and his colleagues discovered these discrepancies by chance while studying rats that they had trained to press a lever in a certain pattern. They injected a drug called muscimol, which temporarilty shuts off neurons, into a part of the motor cortex that is involved in paw movement. The animals were no longer able to perform the task, which might be taken as evidence that neurons in this brain region were necessary to its performance. © 2015 Nature Publishing Group

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 21690 - Posted: 12.10.2015

Laura Sanders People who use especially potent pot show signs of damage in a key part of their brain. The results, reported online November 27 in Psychological Medicine, are limited, though: The small brain scanning study doesn’t show that marijuana caused the brain abnormality — only that the two go hand-in-hand. But the findings suggest that potency matters, says study coauthor Tiago Reis Marques, a psychiatrist at King’s College London. “We are no longer talking about smoking cannabis or not smoking cannabis,” Reis Marques says. Just as vodka packs more of a punch than beer, a high-potency toke delivers much more of the psychoactive substance tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. A bigger dose of THC may have stronger effects on the brain, Reis Marques says. That’s important because as marijuana plant breeders perfect their products, THC levels have soared. Samples sold in Colorado, for instance, now have about three times as much THC as plants grown 30 years ago, a recent survey found (SN Online: 3/24/15). Reis Marques and his colleagues scanned the brains of 43 healthy people, about half of whom use cannabis. The researchers used a method called diffusion tensor imaging to study the structure of the brain’s white matter, neural highways that carry messages between brain areas. Participants gave a detailed history of their past drug use, including information about how potent their marijuana was. POT HEAD The corpus callosum — white matter that links the left brain to the right — is weaker in people who smoke high-potency cannabis, a new study suggests. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015.

Keyword: Drug Abuse; Brain imaging
Link ID: 21679 - Posted: 12.08.2015

A new, open-source software that can help track the embryonic development and movement of neuronal cells throughout the body of the worm, is now available to scientists. The software is described in a paper published in the open access journal, eLife on December 3rd by researchers at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) and the Center for Information Technology (CIT); along with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute, New York City; Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut; Zhejiang University, China; and the University of Connecticut Health Center, Farmington. NIBIB is part of the National Institutes of Health. As far as biologists have come in understanding the brain, much remains to be revealed. One significant challenge is determining the formation of complex neuronal structures made up of billions of cells in the human brain. As with many biological challenges, researchers are first examining this question in simpler organisms, such as worms. Although scientists have identified a number of important proteins that determine how neurons navigate during brain formation, it’s largely unknown how all of these proteins interact in a living organism. Model animals, despite their differences from humans, have already revealed much about human physiology because they are much simpler and easier to understand. In this case, researchers chose Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), because it has only 302 neurons, 222 of which form while the worm is still an embryo. While some of these neurons go to the worm nerve ring (brain) they also spread along the ventral nerve cord, which is broadly analogous to the spinal cord in humans. The worm even has its own versions of many of the same proteins used to direct brain formation in more complex organisms such as flies, mice, or humans.

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Brain imaging
Link ID: 21678 - Posted: 12.08.2015

By Diana Kwon The human brain is unique: Our remarkable cognitive capacity has allowed us to invent the wheel, build the pyramids and land on the moon. In fact, scientists sometimes refer to the human brain as the “crowning achievement of evolution.” But what, exactly, makes our brains so special? Some leading arguments have been that our brains have more neurons and expend more energy than would be expected for our size, and that our cerebral cortex, which is responsible for higher cognition, is disproportionately large—accounting for over 80 percent of our total brain mass. Suzana Herculano-Houzel, a neuroscientist at the Institute of Biomedical Science in Rio de Janeiro, debunked these well-established beliefs in recent years when she discovered a novel way of counting neurons—dissolving brains into a homogenous mixture, or “brain soup.” Using this technique she found the number of neurons relative to brain size to be consistent with other primates, and that the cerebral cortex, the region responsible for higher cognition, only holds around 20 percent of all our brain’s neurons, a similar proportion found in other mammals. In light of these findings, she argues that the human brain is actually just a linearly scaled-up primate brain that grew in size as we started to consume more calories, thanks to the advent of cooked food. Other researchers have found that traits once believed to belong solely to humans also exist in other members of the animal kingdom. Monkeys have a sense of fairness. Chimps engage in war. Rats show altruism and exhibit empathy. In a study published last week in Nature Communications, neuroscientist Christopher Petkov and his group at Newcastle University found that macaques and humans share brain areas responsible for processing the basic structures of language. © 2015 Scientific American

Keyword: Evolution; Brain imaging
Link ID: 21668 - Posted: 12.01.2015