Brain areas functions map

width="210"You don’t have to be a neurosurgeon to know it’s hard to get to the right place without a good map. But neuroscientists have been blundering around with blurry brain maps, which sometimes aren’t very detailed, or omit important functions. That’s why a new map is so exciting — it shows nearly 100 areas that hadn’t been reported before.

The map, described in a study published today in Nature, is a detailed look at the part of the brain that handles all your senses, as well as your motion — plus some other functions like problem solving and emotional regulation. It’s called the cerebral cortex, and it’s the brain’s outer layer of nerve tissue. Think of it as "a sheet about the size of a large pizza, and about the thickness of the cardboard under the pizza, " says David McCormick, a neuroscience and psychology professor at Yale. The map was assembled using data from the Human Connectome Project, an effort funded by the National Institutes of Health to better understand how the human brain works by compiling as much neural data as possible.

"To understand the brain and to fix it, we really need to know the circuit diagram and all the parts, how they work and how they interact, " says McCormick, who did not take part in the study. "And this paper is a major advance toward understanding the circuit diagram."

A map of myelin content (fatty insulation surrounding the brain’s nerves) in the left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex.Matthew F. Glasser, David C. Van Essen

width="210"Putting together all that data helped identify these new areas. The cortex’s thickness, for instance, varies from brain region; in some places it is as thin as 1mm and in others, as thick as 4.5mm. Overlaying that with imaging that reveals the brain’s blood flow, called fMRI, and adding information about the fatty insulation surrounding the brain’s nerves let the researchers create new boundaries for brain areas, says study co-author Matthew Glasser, a neuroscientist working on his MD at Washington University. Anywhere two of these things changed together in the brain was where the neural cartographers put a new boundary.

Using this method, the researchers divided the human brain into 180 cortical areas, including 97 new ones. One of these regions, for example, is a big groove called POS2 that’s right in front of the visual cortex, which is the part of the brain that allows you to see. The researchers identified the area by looking at the fMRI data and noticing that POS2 stayed deactivated when the subjects were solving a math problem, but sprung into action when they relaxed. No one knows what it does, Glasser says. But that might be because no one’s known to look at it before. "What they found was about twice as many areas as was known, which is a huge leap in neuroscience of human brain, " McCormick says.

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