Even though it is one of the most studied objects in human history, the human brain is still by and large one of the most mysterious things we’ve ever encountered. Neuroscientists, regardless of how much research they do, continue to be puzzled by its power, and how it is capable of producing the one thing that separates us from most other species on Earth: human consciousness.
Luckily, they have technology on their side. A new tool, that digitally reconstructs and maps the brain and its neurons, has been developed to help researchers study and further understand how consciousness manifests in mankind.
Before this new method was available, researchers had to use a dye that was injected into certain cells and then traced along neuronal pathways. However, it is almost impossible to completely trace an entire neuron’s pathway. This new tool takes less time, less effort, is less invasive and can be scaled either up or down.
Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, explained at a Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative (BRAIN) meeting that his team’s new 3D mapping tool has revealed new details about the claustrum, or the part of the brain that Koch believes plays a large role in both the consciousness of mice and men.
The findings they presented were 3D brain models and neuronal pathways produced by tracing them through the brains of mice. By using mice that were designed to react a certain way to a specific type of drug, certain neurons in the claustrum could be triggered at will. The triggering of these neurons would then cause a reaction--the spreading of a fluorescent protein throughout an entire neuron.
Then, after they had successfully traced three entire neurons, they used 10,000 cross-sectional images of the mice’s brains to create a 3D reconstruction of the neurons themselves.
What they found
The three neurons they mapped were found to stretch across both brain hemispheres, with one of them being so large that it went entirely around the circumference of the brain “like a crown of thorns,” explains Koch. These three neurons were also believed to be connected to almost all of the outer portions of the brain that receive and process sensory information.
These findings support Koch’s theory that the claustrum is largely involved in producing consciousness by coordinating different inputs and outputs.
The arrival of such a helpful tool is a welcome sight, but it’s also an incredibly expensive one. For example, researchers would need a lot more money in order to map all of the brain’s neurons on a grand scale. However, Koch is set on the claustrum and its importance, as he plans to continue mapping neurons that stem from this piece of the brain.
Perhaps in the near future we will have some idea of how consciousness is produced and whether or not the claustrum is as important as Koch believes it to be.
What do you think about the mapping of neurons and the manifestation of human consciousness?