Sunday, June 23, 2013
The BigBrain Project and the 3-D Brain Map
The BigBrain project has just been published in most the recent issue of the journal "Science". It is a major project carried out by a team of neuroscientists from different institutions that created a 3-D atlas of the brain in exquisite detail. It was created by painstakingly stacking thousands of very fine slices from the brain of a "neurologically normal" sixty-five year old female who had donated her brain for scientific research. This model allows anyone to view any portion of the brain in microscopic detail so as to understand the various cell to cell connections in each part of the brain and the differences in these connections among the various parts of the brain. It will give us a better understanding of how information is routed throughout the brain and by understanding the "normal" brain we can see how these connections differ in a pathological or "abnormal" brain. In a way, it is like understanding the internal wiring of a computer or how the parts of a car engine fit together to work as a whole. However, the brain, in its exquisite complexity, carries out many functions simultaneously. It informs us of all our sensory inputs such as the ambient temperature, the firmness of the ground on which we are walking, the sounds of the birds near by, all the sights we behold around us, the position of our limbs in space, the condition of our gut. At the same time it manages among many things, our respiration, our heart beat, our blood pressure, our internal fluid status and our biological clock. While doing all this it controls our muscles so that we can achieve coordinated, purposeful movement in response to our thoughts and our vocal cords and muscles of our hands so that we may express ourselves. And most remarkably of all, in the midst of all this it allows us to make sense of what is going on around us, recognize our relationship to the world around us, formulate thoughts by which we interact with the world and formulate thoughts in which we can plan what we will do in the next moments, minutes, hours, days, weeks or even years. While all this is occurring the brain generates emotions that permit us to feel our existence on this planet and in this universe and these feelings drive us to interact with the world in the ways of our choosing. Most remarkably, perhaps, while all this is going on it generates thoughts and feelings, generally inseparable from each other,in response to the thoughts and feelings expressed by others. There is nothing concrete or tangible about a thought or a feeling. We all know what they are but how difficult to truly define. Yet these thoughts/feelings are what human beings are all about. It is through the exchange of thought and feeling, spoken and unspoken, that we create bonds which lead to families and societies and the myriad consequences that result from these. The BigBrain project can not show us "thought/feeling." It may show us pathways that "thought/feeling" uses and where breakdowns in these pathways can lead to a wide array of problems. We may be able to better understand the relay stations that allow the brains many functions to work in concert. But this 3-D model can not show us how feeling and thought is generated and transformed. Perhaps we will discover where a song originates but it will not explain how a song originates. The answers to the most profound questions explaining how our brain makes us who we are lies in the biochemistry of the brain and the key is in the way the energy of the world outside of us interacts with the chemicals in our brain to generate further energy waves that create the most amazing interplay of energy, the dance of the human brain with universe in which it resides.