Article image

Most advanced brain mapping yet reveals how we think

A groundbreaking study in the field of neuroscience has resulted in the most advanced and comprehensive brain map of an insect to date, bringing researchers one step closer to uncovering the elusive mechanism of thought. 

The study, spearheaded by a team of scientists from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Cambridge, focused on the larval fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, an important model organism in scientific research due to its significant genetic and behavioral similarities to humans.

The researchers’ incredible achievement, published in the journal Science, was made possible through funding from the National Science Foundation. The detailed connectome, or neural map, traced every connection between the 3,016 neurons found in the fruit fly’s brain, resulting in a staggering 548,000 neural connections. 

Study senior author Joshua Vogelstein emphasized the importance of understanding these connections: “If we want to understand who we are and how we think, part of that is understanding the mechanism of thought. And the key to that is knowing how neurons connect with each other.”

Mapping an entire brain

The process of mapping an entire brain at the cellular level is a daunting task that requires advanced technology and an enormous amount of time. To achieve this feat, researchers must slice the brain into hundreds or thousands of individual tissue samples, then use electron microscopes to image each slice. Following this, they must painstakingly reconstruct the entire brain by piecing together each neuron in the correct position.

The larval fruit fly was chosen for this study due to its fundamental biological similarities to humans, including a comparable genetic foundation. Additionally, the fruit fly exhibits complex learning and decision-making behaviors, making it an ideal model organism for neuroscience research. The practical advantage of working with the fruit fly is its relatively small brain, which can be imaged and reconstructed within a manageable timeframe.

The research team meticulously charted and categorized each neuron by its role in the brain, discovering that the most active circuits were those connected to the learning center. The methods developed during this study can be applied to any brain connectome project. 

Vogelstein even offered their code to other researchers attempting to map larger animal brains, predicting that scientists may take on the challenge of mapping a mouse brain within the next decade.

Edda Thiels, a program director in NSF’s Division of Biological Infrastructure, highlights the far-reaching impact of this study: “Having connectomes, such as the fly brain connectome developed here, for diverse organisms will open the brain up to everyone – schoolchildren, citizen scientists, researchers, and others curious about the inner workings of the brain.” 

The completion of the most expansive map of an insect brain ever achieved marks a significant milestone in neuroscience and promises to inspire new developments in brain research and machine learning architectures.

What scientists hope to gain by mapping the human brain

Mapping the entire human brain has the potential to unlock an unprecedented understanding of the human mind and its functions. By generating a detailed connectome of the human brain, we can gain insights into various aspects of human cognition, behavior, and neurological disorders. Here are some areas where knowledge can be gained from mapping the entire human brain:

  1. Understanding brain function: A comprehensive map of the human brain would provide researchers with invaluable information on how different regions and neural circuits interact to produce complex cognitive functions, such as learning, memory, decision-making, and emotions.
  2. Diagnosing and treating neurological disorders: With a complete map of the human brain, researchers could identify the specific neural circuits and connections implicated in various neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and autism. This knowledge could lead to more accurate diagnoses and the development of targeted therapies for these conditions.
  3. Personalized medicine: By understanding the unique wiring of individual brains, personalized medicine could be developed to target specific neural circuits and connections, leading to more effective and individualized treatments for a wide range of neurological and psychiatric conditions.
  4. Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs): A detailed understanding of the human brain’s connectivity could pave the way for more advanced BCIs, which could have a wide range of applications, including assisting people with paralysis or amputations, enhancing cognitive performance, and even treating mental health disorders.
  5. Artificial intelligence and machine learning: Insights gained from mapping the human brain could inform the development of more advanced artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms. By understanding how the human brain processes information and learns, AI researchers can develop more efficient and human-like AI systems.
  6. Education and learning: A deeper understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying learning and memory could lead to the development of more effective educational strategies, tailored to individual learning styles and needs.

In summary, mapping the entire human brain has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the human mind, improve our ability to diagnose and treat neurological disorders, and drive advancements in fields such as artificial intelligence, personalized medicine, and education. However, given the immense complexity of the human brain, achieving this goal remains a formidable challenge for neuroscience.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day