Blog September 21, 2016

Mapping the Brain: Dawn of a New Era for Neuroscience Research?

On July 20, a team of neuroscience researchers from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri and other centers published a precise new brain map in Nature — an outcome of the White House BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative, first announced in 2013. The new map draws in part on the brain’s internal web of connections as recorded through functional MRI (fMRI) and other data from hundreds of subjects. The researchers used that data to look at how neurons light up together in response to certain stimuli, like listening to stories, solving math problems or just lying quietly in the scanner. From the results, they created a map of the brain cortex that divides that outer layer of the brain into 360 distinct sections, 180 on each hemisphere. Nearly 100 of these regions had never before been identified.


Each section is a gradient of activity. Some areas play a larger role in seeing, hearing and feeling — but none is completely dedicated to a certain function. For example, the researchers found that one previously large region of the cortex, near the front of the brain, was actually composed from a dozen smaller ones. The area as a whole was found to become active during many types of thought, with perhaps each small region emphasizing a particular aspect of the thought process. The identified areas, moreover, are not only more modulated than others by particular tasks, they also differ in their physiological properties, such as intrinsic and extrinsic wiring and cell morphology.


This version of the brain map is only the first step in a larger effort to understand the relationship between structure (anatomy) and functions (sensory processing, executive functions, long term memory, etc.), as well as links between brain activity and intelligence. Continued development of the brain map over the next decade should enable researchers to look at the development of young brains, and for the sorts of changes that develop in the brain over time in diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease or depression. By bridging the gap between developmental genetics, anatomy and adult brain functions, this research should open highly promising avenues for area-specific treatment of epilepsy, stroke, cancer and other conditions.


The Brain Map is also expected to provide an important new tool for neurosurgeons, bringing greater precision to their work and to clinical work-ups of patients affected by brain disorders and diseases. The map will furthermore open new opportunities to selectively target brain areas for closed-loop brain training, to track not only the development of Alzheimer’s disease on a highly specific regional manner but also stroke and epilepsy.


As important a project as the brain map is for advancing neuroscience research, it is just one of several recent research initiatives in this field. For example, The Allen Institute for Brain Science has just released an unprecedented database of in vivo neuronal recordings, together with their functional properties, from the primary visual cortex of mice. We expect this action to lead to a wave of theoretical and analytical reports linking intrinsic cell features, such as electrical currents, and functions. Similarly, the McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute has also announced that it will make all research results and data, including its extensive database of brain scans and bank of tissue samples, freely available at the time of publication and not pursue patents on any of its discoveries. Their aim: to reduce duplication of efforts and make neuroscience research more efficient.


Compared to disease areas like oncology and immunology, neuroscience has witnessed a dearth of investment activity, compounded by a string of recent failures in Alzheimer’s disease.  However, we are starting to see signs of life in this space, suggesting that interest may be picking up.  Venture capital funding of neuroscience start-ups has been increasing, and established companies are stepping up their focus in the space as well.  Genentech and AC Immune recently reported on their strategy to seek out safer mAbs for Alzheimer’s disease and other neuroinflammatory conditions. There has also been a great spike in development interest in the field of electrophysiology devices aimed at recording brain electrical waves, with multiple new company formations in the field as well as indications of interest from large firms like Siemens.


The new findings from the Brain Map and other major neurology research initiatives will undoubtedly advance the knowledge of brain functioning in both healthy and diseased individuals, and further our understanding of the best targets and approaches for tackling neurodegenerative disease.