Brain's Structure Laid Out Like a Street Map

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It turns out the most complex organ in the human body is built from a fairly quaint blueprint. A new study by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital says building a brain is much easier than scientists thought.

"The fiber architecture of the brain is more or less as simple as you can possibly imagine. Each pathway, rather than being an isolated pathway, is a component in a three-dimensional grid."

Researchers had thought the brain's connections were more or less like a bowl of spaghetti, with wires criss-crossing at random.

But by using precise imaging techniques, researcher Van Wedeen and colleagues were able to see the grid emerge. And even though the brain folded in on itself more and more as they went from simple to complex brains, the basic grid pattern remained. (Video source: New Scientist)

The researchers say this is a perfect illustration of one of the fundamentals of biology: it only takes a few simple rules, repeated over and over, to generate enormously complicated structures. And a neuroscientist who wasn't involved in the study told LiveScience...

"The human brain is the single most complex device in the known universe, and it works by nerve cells talking to each other. If we can't figure out how they decide who to talk to and what they tell each other, we just don't understand how the brain functions."

But the research has a few critics. Another neuroscientist told NPR the findings still have to be verified using other techniques. And even if the brain is generally grid-like, there are bound to be fibers that break the rules.

"In a couple of important ways, I think they may have oversimplified this story."
"Take all those 90-degree intersections, for example. Van Essen says not everything is perpendicular."

Other studies have shown the surface of the brain has fibers that don't follow the grid pattern. But Wedeen says the deeper in the brain you go, the more rigid the grid pattern becomes. A writer for SmartPlanet says that makes understanding disorders like autism and Alzheimer's disease an easier task.

"Practically, mapping the brain this way could provide an easier way for doctors and neuroscientists to compare studies - using something like a coordinate system to pinpoint abnormalities or observations."

What's more, the new findings may help explain how complex brains arose. A writer for The Scientist says with simple rules guiding its development, the brain could easily add new structures.

"The old perception of the brain as a tangled mass of neurons didn't make sense in terms of natural selection: how can thousands of brain fibers connect and disconnect at random to form a more complex structure?"

The research comes in the middle of a five-year effort by the National Institutes of Health to try to map all of the connections in the human brain.

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