The Plastic Brain

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Mmmm, neural circuitry.


Cognitive consilience

More than a century ago, a Spanish pathologist named Santiago Ramon y Cajal produced a series of highly detailed drawings of the microscopic structures of the human brain. It marked the beginning of modern neuroanatomy and ultimately helped earn Cajal a share of the 1906 Nobel Prize for medicine (with Italian anatomist Camillo Golgi.

Cajal’s drawings remain a marvel and are still widely used, but advances in neuroscience demand new ways to look at – and understand – how the human brain is structured and how it functions.

A recent PhD graduate and a post-doc at the University of California San Diego – Soren Solari in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Rich Stoner in the Department of Neurosciences – have created a modern take on Cajal’s pioneering work.

Publishing in the journal Frontiers in Neuroanatomy, Solari and Stoner have created a detailed review of cortical circuitry, along with a first-of-a-kind interactive website and an iPhone/iPad application that allows scientists to navigate aspects of the human brain.

“We wanted to create an interactive Figure 1,” said Stoner, who currently conducts research at the UC San Diego Autism Center of Excellence. “Readers of the review are able to click on a circuit and quickly find an accompanying reference.”

To build the tool, Solari and Stoner synthesized seven hypothetical circuits of the brain from scores of published neuroanatomy papers into a single interactive map that depicts consolidated long-term declarative memory, short-term declarative memory, working memory/information processing, behavioral memory selection, behavioral memory output, cognitive control and cortical information flow regulation. The map is built on data derived from multiple mammalian models.

“It’s the first coherent view of cortical circuits across different scales from different sources,” said Stoner. “We use the term ‘cognitive consilience’ because it’s about bringing together a lot of different information to form a coherent picture. It’s the unity of knowledge.”

By clicking on different links within each depicted circuit, users can read brief descriptions of the visualized cells and structures. The information is not definitive, of course.  Solari and Stoner say they have erected this first iteration as a model for future researchers to add new information. “We’d like to see this become a viable tool for scientists to describe their work,” said Stoner.

Author: Rogan Tinsley

Biology, science and maths teacher with a PhD in Neuroscience and passion for education.

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