Researchers have created the most detailed general map of the brain to date by scanning the brains of 1200 people. After recording detailed imaging of the subjects’ brain activity as they performed a variety of mental tasks, the information was used to ‘teach’ a computer to identify spatial ‘regions’ of related activity. These regions span the brain, creating a 3D, puzzle-like map.

Also called a ‘brain atlas,’ this map contains 180 regions, about half of which had not previously been identified. This is not to say, however, that each of these regions represents a previously unidentified chunk of brain, or an undiscovered neural process. In fact, it is possible that these regions may turn out not to be particularly useful. There is currently no widely agreed upon method for defining ‘regions’ of the brain, as what is useful to define as a region varies depending on the application.

Should the map turn out to be predictive – if the regions detailed are genetically different or broadly useful in understanding brain function – the atlas could be a keystone in new neural understanding. Luckily, the predictability of the map is testable, for example by genetic testing. While this work is not currently shaking neuroscience to its core, the research team expects the map to evolve over time, hopefully providing a step towards understanding what is in our own heads.

Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Elizabeth Lamkin and Anna Leshinskaya for their insight and comments on the story. Elizabeth is a graduate student in Harvard’s Program in Neuroscience, and Anna is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, at the University of Pennsylvania

Managing Correspondent: Sam Dillavou



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