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Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Brain is Full of Surprises

Maybe you heard about the study published last week that compared the brain’s wiring to the streets of Manhattan. It made me wonder if this had anything to do with how active my brain’s fear center gets when I’m in the back of a New York taxi, but apparently the scientists did not see the value of this line of research.

They did, however, find that the connections in our brains seem to follow a fairly basic design, that instead of resembling a bowl of tangled spaghetti, as once thought, they’re laid out like a grid. (Well, that’s reassuring.) And, says the study’s lead author, Van Wedeen, of Harvard Medical School, that helps clarify how a relatively small number of genes can produce a blueprint for something so complex. It also explains how the basic brain of a flatworm could evolve into a stunningly complicated human mind. To extend Wedeen’s Manhattan analogy, it’s a case of adding a lot more streets to the grid.

The value of the study, along with other major brain mapping undertakings, such as the Human Connectome Project, is that they’ll help scientists see what goes wrong to cause disorders such as autism and Alzheimer’s disease.

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