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The Incredible Thinking Machine

New tools deepen our understanding of how brains work.

Mar 16, 2017 5:00 AMNov 20, 2019 10:05 PM


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Photo Credits: Kira Poskanzer, University of California, San Francisco

This glowing cascade of specialized off-switches was created using fluorescent dyes that react with laser light. These particular nerve cells monitor other off-switch nerve cells, shutting them down when needed.

Thinking and behavior rely on a give and take between neurons that excite brain circuits and those that inhibit them. Neurons that turn off brain circuits do so by decreasing electrical activity to target nerve cells. These off-switches make up 20 percent of the outer layer of the brain (the cerebral cortex) and when they malfunction, they can lead to a variety of brain disorders including autism and epilepsy.

Photo Credits: Arun Mahadevan, Qutub Lab, Rice University

Who knew? As human neurons develop, they build elaborate social networks like these. To get a handle on this process, some researchers have turned to statistical analysis. This provides a way to measure changes in single cells and the network as it grows.

Details on social behavior of the network will help researchers understand the design of brain tissue and the complex process that creates the brain and spinal cord. Such insights will also aid researchers in their quest for new treatments to repair damage to the nervous system.

Photo Credits: Kristi Clark and Arthur W. Toga, USC Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, USC Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute, www.loni.usc.edu

About 25 years ago , NSF funded a group of researchers that developed algorithms to create 3-D maps of the brain’s function and structure. They and other researchers continue to enhance imaging techniques to map brain data in innovative ways. The results are images such as this prismatic hippocampus, captured by magnetic resonance imaging. The colors show the direction of fiber tracks within the structure altered by Alzheimer’s disease.

These images capture just a few of the many striking brain advances fostered by NSF-funded research. Continued investment in brain exploration will ensure a more complete understanding of the structure and function of our incredible thinking machine. The images in this NSF gallery are copyrighted and may not be used without permission from the copyright holder.

Photo Credits: Erin Hecht, Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, Georgia State University

These elegant wisps are white matter “skeletons” of a human brain (left) and a chimpanzee brain (right). White matter carries nerve impulses between nerve cells. The skeletons are created using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), a technique that specifically teases out the location and orientation of white matter.

DTI is one imaging technique researchers are using to identify regions in the brain that change when humans learn how to use technology. By looking at both human and chimpanzee brains, it may be possible to determine whether and how the human brain adapted to support technology skills that are uniquely human from stone toolmaking to computer programming.

Photo Credits: Genny Anderson, Santa Barbara City College

In California tide pools, slithery sea hares like this one create ink-laden smoke screens for protection. In the lab, they create opportunities for discovery. As a model system, the humble sea hare’s brain is relatively simple, composed of about 20,000 neurons that grow throughout its lifetime.

Researchers are using the sea hare model to learn about individual cells function, discover the chemical pathways controlling various brain activities and to study how memories are processed and stored.

Understanding how to control specific chemicals could advance new ways to diagnose and treat chronic pain, drug addiction and neurological diseases.

Photo Credits: Takaki Komiyama, Greg Jefferis, Lisa Marin and Liqun Luo, Stanford University  

Heady times are on the horizon for brain research with efforts underway across the globe. As a leading partner in the U.S. BRAIN Initiative, launched in 2013, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is advancing fundamental research of the brain’s structure, activity and function. NSF also plays an integral role in efforts to coordinate large brain projects in various countries with an aim toward launching a Global Brain Initiative.

To mark Brain Awareness Week (March 13-19), the following images showcase some of the NSF-funded tools and insights that are deepening the understanding of the 3 pound parallel processor that sits atop our shoulders.

Simple brains offer insights into the more complex human brain. At left, pink and green highlight the fruit fly’s center of smell.

To learn more, go to nsf.gov.

Photo Credits: Hoffman-Kim Lab, Brown University

About a third of a millimeter in diameter, this mini-brain offers a 3-D alternative to cells growing in a petri dish. It’s cheap, costing about 25 cents to make, and relatively easy to grow. The brain begins forming a day after its seeds are planted and develops complex 3-D nerve networks within two to three weeks. A small sample of living tissue from a single rodent can make thousands of mini-brains.

The mini-brain lasts about a month and it could be used to study a range of challenges in neuroscience including transplanting nerve cells that could help treat Parkinson’s disease and studies on how adult nerve stem cells develop.

Photo Credits: Ying Ma and Elizabeth Hillman, Columbia's Zuckerman Institute

New optical imaging tools are providing unprecedented views of brain processes. One such technique produced these rainbow brain lobes of a mouse, another popular system researchers use to study the brain. The colors reflect the vivid synchronized patterns of neural activity in a mouse at rest.

This research marks the first time brain activity and blood flow were simultaneously imaged. The work provides a completely new view of brain activity and could lead to a better understanding of how various brain regions interact. The work also lays a foundation for pursuing new treatments for various neurological diseases.

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