New Scanner Shows Simplistic Organization of the Brain
April 1, 2012 6:10 PM
A detailed image of the nerve fibers' pattern in the brain
(Source: Van Wedeen / Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Mass. General Hospital)
As it turns out, the brain has a simpler pattern of nerve fibers than previously thought
Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital researchers have snapped new images of the brain and found that it has a much simpler structure than previously thought.
Van Wedeen, study leader and neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, along with a team of researchers, have scanned the human brain as well as the brains of other mammals and found that they all have strikingly similar patterns of nerve fibers that are organized in a simple fashion.
Up until now, the exact organization of the nerve fibers in the human brain has been unclear. It's challenging to scan
fiber connectivity in the human cortex
for images because humans can't sit in an MRI scanner longer than about 45 minutes. With such a short amount of time to scan, Wedeen said the nerve fibers tend to look like chaotic strands of spaghetti with no real order or pattern.
But now, the researchers have found a very different image of the human brain as well as the brains of primates. Using diffusion spectrum magnetic resonance imaging, which is capable of reaching 10 times the resolution of traditional MRI machines, the team was able to scan the brains of living humans in a short amount of time. The researchers also scanned the brains of four dead primates, including rhesus monkeys, marmosets, galagos, and owl monkeys.
After completing the scans and looking at the images, the 40 billion nerve cells that make about 1,000 connections each in the brain
all seemed to make sense
"What emerged was astonishing," said Wedeen. "What emerged was that the set of fibers that crossed a given fiber, invariably -- and that's a really strong invariably -- look like mutually parallel fibers all coming in like the teeth of a comb and crossing it in one direction.
"Looking across multiple species, it emerged that the pattern was substantially similar. When you went from primates with small brains to primates with big brains...the rules were the same, but they were being applied more diversely and with more layers in the larger, more complex brains."
The brains observed all had similar vertical and horizontal cross-stitch-like patterns that resemble a quilt. According to Wedeen, this sort of simple pattern makes sense because the brain wouldn't have been able to evolve or grow if the wiring were chaotic. He compared it to a person wiring their basement at random, which would result in a house fire.
"If you try to picture what would happen if you tried to turn one spaghetti brain into a different spaghetti brain, you realize you would need an impossibly intelligent designer standing above the brain and rewiring it," said Wedeen.
Wedeen hopes this research will lead to a better understanding of the brain in general, and eventually, a better understanding of
problems like Alzheimer's disease
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