Thursday, February 5, 2009

Beautiful Brainbows

It is intolerable that we do not have [a connection map of] the human brain. Without it there is little hope of understanding how our brains work except in the crudest way.
-Francis Crick (1993), Nobel Laureate Biologist

The January 29,2009 issue of the Journal Nature highlights the work of Harvard biologist Jeff Lichtman. Lichtman's team of researchers are busy meticulously dissecting a mouse's brain, slicing it into single strips of tissue and fixing that tissue onto plastic film for study. But mouse brains are only the sideshow in Lichtman's lab. Intra-neuronal connections and neuron-muscular connections in humans are the main topic of study. Lichtman is using color to map every connection in the human brain. The development of green fluorescent protein in the 1990's, gave Lichtman his first tool. He has been developing more colors to differentiate neural connections for almost ten years now and has named his technique colouring the Brainbow.
The brainbow, Lichtman says, allows you to watch competition [between neurons] in real time. And," he adds, the brainbow shows that the brain is not a mass of discrete anatomical areas, or a collection of chemical ingredients, but a vast loom of connected cells.
This is what we are, lots and lots of connections.
Although the 1990's were labeled "The Decade of the Brain" may be the real decade of the brain still lies in the future. A map of the brain is forthcoming, with that map knowledge of how the human mind actually works will truly begin.

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