The final frontier: mapping out the brain

NeoThe Mind

Whether you choose to traverse the mysteries of the mind through science or psychoactive substances, there’s no denying that the human brain is a wonderful, complex and, at times, frightening thing.

Why is mapping the brain so important?

This sentiment is shared not only amongst psychonauts, but also by many in the scientific community, who over the years have sought to unravel the mysteries of the mind by mapping out the brain into distinct regions. Developing such a map would help scientists garner a better understanding of the structure, function and connectivity of different parts of the brain, which potentially could have a major impact on the medical world and further our insight into how certain drugs interact with the human mind.

However, the accuracy of these maps has always been an issue of some debate. While modern magnetic resonance imaging methods are able to record blood flow in the brain during mental tasks, most maps have been constructed based on the results of a single type of measurement – a technique that can lead to incomplete and ambiguous conclusions.

A new piece of research promises to put an end to this dispute once and for all, with a team led by neuroscientist Matthew Glasser of Washington University Medical School recently releasing what some are dubbing ‘the ultimate brain map’.

The most detailed mapping of the human brain

The map was published on July 20 in the scientific journal Nature, and is the culmination of imaging data gathered from 210 healthy adults taking part in the Human Connectome Project. Comprised of 180 separate sections (97 of which have never before been identified) located on the outermost layer of the brain, it is the most detailed map of the human brain in existence.

How did the team manage to come up with such a precise map? Well, unlike previous studies, the researchers took a number of different metrics into account, including:

● Brain function
● Cortical thickness
● Topographic organisation of cells in brain tissue
● Myelin levels
● Connectivity between various regions of the brain

Combining these results into a single image was critical for the map’s accuracy.

“[Using multiple measurements] greatly increases confidence that they are producing the best in vivo estimates of cortical areas,” explained Thomas Yeo, a computational neuroscientist at the National University of Singapore.

For more details on the brain map, be sure to check out the following YouTube clip from Nature Video:

How will this brain map impact you?

While this map is – for now at least – the most accurate of its kind, it is important to note that it’s not a fully comprehensive depiction of the brain. In fact, as Robert Sovey, a scientist at Harvard’s Center for Biomedical Imaging explained, recording every neuron in the brain is nigh on impossible.

“No one thinks 180 is a perfect number, but it’s a powerful representation of where we are now,” stated Mr Savoy in reference to the number of sections in the brain map, as quoted by Wired.

So, it looks as though we’re still a long way off mapping out every twist and turn of the final frontier. Nevertheless, developing a stronger understanding of the mind and how different parts of the brain connect, communicate and influence each other may prove to have immense medical applications further down the line.

In addition, the detailed map may offer important clues that allow us to better comprehend how certain drugs affect the brain. For example, a study published in April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America used neuroimaging to show the effects of LSD on the brain. It’s possible that similar studies in the future, when used in conjunction when the new brain map, may provide us with greater insight into the ongoing enigma that is the human mind.