Your brain is the boss of your body. But it contributes only about 2% of average human body weight. How can something so small run all the body’s functions and simultaneously perform complex tasks like solving a crossword or processing sound?
There’s much scientists don’t yet understand about the marvel that is the human brain. Yongsoo Kim leads a team of scientists at Pennsylvania State University. The group studies mouse brains, hoping to learn more about human brain development and disorders. Modern brain mapping tools help them track which cell types make up this organ and how they work. But it’s a very big job.
Let’s start charting:
Step 1: Scientists first need to label a specific cell type. (There are many different types of brain cells, including neurons and glia.) They use two kinds of methods. One depends on genes. It uses animals, like mice, that can be genetically engineered so only the target cell type is visible under fluorescent light. The other involves a chemical treatment to make brain samples transparent and antibodies to label the target cell type with a fluorescent tag.
Step 2: Using microscope tools, scientists take snapshots of the entire brain. Then they stitch the images together. Kim says it’s like building a Google map of the brain: By combining millions of individual street photos, viewers can zoom in to see a street corner and zoom out to see an entire city. With this technology, scientists can view parts of the brain too small for the naked eye to see.
Step 3: Once scientists find their target cell type in an image set, they locate specific cell features in a reference brain. The reference brain is like a standard map that locates each brain region. The standard map is compared with individual brains to see how they differ.
Step 4: Scientists start over with a different cell type. Each run-through adds more detail. Different labs share data to create complete brain maps.
But is this enough to understand how our “gray matter” works?
Kim says that while researchers have been busy collecting detailed information about the brain, using this data to create new theories about the brain lags. A map does not necessarily tell researchers how the cells work and interact with one another. For example, how do networks of brain cells generate abstract thought? Answering questions like that one may help researchers understand how specific brain changes are linked to disorders like dementia. Then they hope to find new treatments.
Why? The brain is God’s intricate creation. Though there is still much we don’t know about it, new tools used for mapping could help bring unknowns to light.
Pray: That new discoveries would bring glory to God and relief to those with brain disorders.