Cures for Parkinson’s disease and other ailments such as Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and epilepsy may lie in unraveling the secrets of the brain, according to scientists.
Scientists have created a 3-D replica of the human brain that will allow them to unlock its secrets and decode its mysteries in their next frontier in brain exploration.
Hailed as a “technological tour de force,” the virtual brain, known as Bigbrain atlas, is intended to allow the scientists to better understand the structure of the brain and also the most miniscule details of its cell networks.
According to scientists, there are close to a 100 billon neurons all connected in a complex network in the human brain.
Christof Koch, Chief Scientific Officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, recently compared the human brain to the Amazon rainforest, in an NPR interview on “Science Friday.” According to him there are as many neurons in the brain as there are trees in the forest. Like the trees and vines in the rainforest, the brain’s neurons are also tangled up in a complex network.
“There are an enormous number of neurons in the brain,” Dr. Koch said. “Just like in the rainforest, there is enormous diversity of them, and that’s the complexity we are facing.”
Comparing the study of the brain to astrophysics, Dr. Koch said, “we are facing just like in astrophysics over the last 100 years, every new, each new generation of astronomers and astrophysicists discovers that the universe is yet bigger, yet bigger than we thought.
Each time we look with better and better tools, with better microscopes, we see more and more complexity. So now we realize there are not just two types of nerve cells, but there are probably a 1000 different types of nerve cells, just like there are 1000 different species of trees in the rain forest.”
The 3-D replica is intended to help researchers learn how minute building blocks work together to make us who and what we are.
Researchers say the information gained from the study of this virtual brain has far larger implications in the study of diseases. By unraveling the secrets of the brain, scientists will more accurately determine brain tissues that are linked to ailments such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, depression, and epilepsy. In this exciting new future, scientist may be able to remove tumors from brain with little damage the organ itself.
Elaborating on this theory, Dr. Koch said, “And we know from certain mental diseases, you know, I mentioned schizophrenia, there’s also Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, it all involves, various complicated mis-wiring. And so in order to help people ultimately, we need to understand the wiring and mis-wiring, and that can primarily be done at the level of individual cells.”
The virtual BigBrain atlas was created with a real human brain that belonged to a 65-year-old European woman who had willed her remains for biomedical research. According to researchers, it was carved into 7,404 vertical slices and preserved on slides. Researchers said looking at samples under a microscope can provide a high level of detail. A five year effort went into this project.
“It absolutely will help us build bridges between the brain’s structure and its function,” Dr. John Mazziotta, a UCLA neuroscientist said. “The more we understand the components of the machinery, the better position we’re in to understand how it works. It’s pretty hard to understand how a complex electronic device works if you don’t have a good wiring diagram.”
According to reports, BigBrain uncovers the brain’s structures with a resolution that is 50 times stronger than the brain maps produced by medical imaging techniques such as the MRI scanners. With so much detail revealed, it will allow researchers, physicians and drug developers to examine the brain in a way that neither MRIs nor tissue samples on microscope slides can provide.
“People are pretty excited about it,” Dr. Mazziotta said at a recent meeting of the “Organization for Human Brain Mapping” in Seattle, where BigBrain was presented to scientists. A cure for Parkinson’s and other brain conditions may rely on this research.
By Perviz Walji