Few times in history has mankind ever united to solve a single goal. Even the ultimate moonshot in history--putting a man on the moon--was driven by international competition rather than unification. So it's perhaps fitting that mankind is now uniting to understand the organ that fundamentally makes us human: our brain. First envisioned in 2016 through a series of discussions on the "grand challenges" in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, the International Brain Initiative (IBI) "came out" this week in a forward-looking paper in Neuron. Rather than each country formulating their own brain projects independently, the project argues, it's high time for the world to come together and share their findings, resources, and expertise across borders.
Thanks to deep learning, the tricky business of making brain atlases just got a lot easier. Brain maps are all the rage these days. From rainbow-colored dots that highlight neurons or gene expression across the brain, to neon "brush strokes" that represent neural connections, every few months seem to welcome a new brain map. Without doubt, these maps are invaluable for connecting the macro (the brain's architecture) to the micro (genetic profiles, protein expression, neural networks) across space and time. Scientists can now compare brain images from their own experiments to a standard resource.
For centuries, scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying the human brain have attempted to unlock its mysteries. The role the brain plays in human personality -- as well as the myriad of disorders and conditions that come along with it -- is often difficult to study because studying the organ while it's still functioning in a human body is complicated. Now, researchers at The Allen Institute for Brain Science have introduced a new tool that could make such study a whole lot easier: functioning virtual brain cells. The fully 3D computer models of living human brain tissue are based on actual brain samples that were left over after surgery, and present what could be the most powerful testbed for studying the human brain ever created. The samples used to construct the virtual models was healthy tissue that was removed during brain operations, and represents parts of the brain that are typically associated with thoughts and consciousness, as well as memory.
In the past two million years, humans have experienced a massive increase in brain size, one not seen in any other species. This rapid evolution gave us brains roughly triple the volume of those of our pre-human ancestors. But the intelligence we enjoy as a result would seem to be advantageous for all sorts of species, not just us. So why was ours the only line to go down this route? The social brain hypothesis was a popular answer.
It turns out that in larger human brains, regions involved in bringing together information are hyperexpanded – but we don't know what affect this might have on intelligence yet. Armin Raznahan at the US National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland and his colleagues discovered this by comparing brain images from around 3,000 people. They compared the area of 80,000 points across the cortex – the large part of our brains that is involved in higher functions like thinking. Analysing these, they found that some particular areas expanded more than others in people who had an overall larger brain size. These regions seem to be involved in integrating information from across the brain, he says.