Lights and Road Maps of Neuroscience

Lights and Road Maps of Neuroscience

In the past five years alone, we’ve learned more about the human brain than in the century before.

Showing Brain Activity with fMRI

At the turn of the century, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research sparked a neuroscience explosion by showing what parts of the brain function “light up” when humans actively do specific cognitive tasks. The research revealed that all cognitive functions occur through distributed networks of regions, which are firing simultaneously.

However, this provided little value because many areas involved in one cognitive task were multitasking—participating in many other, sometimes very different, cognitive activities. For example, regions of the inferior frontal lobe were active in both language and mathematical computation.

fMRI showed us a geographical map of brain regions simultaneously active, similar to viewing activity in cities as you fly over them in a plane at night. You see lights but don’t know what the areas actually do or how the disparate regions are interconnected.

Visualizing the Brain with DTI

Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) emerged in the early 21st century. This technology enabled researchers to visualize the road map of the brain by clarifying fiber tracts that linked the network regions together and by showing how maturation and experience are integral in building the human brain’s highway system.

Yet, even with DTI, researchers were still unsure of the role individual regions played in cognitive processing. Other researchers started measuring single neuron responses in specific brain regions — like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area — to determine the exact type of stimulus those neurons are mapped to handle.

New Neuroscience Research

The newest research is combining these technologies to better explain how damage affects the brain wiring and to determine, in much greater detail, the actual wiring patterns for different cognitive functions in normal brains and connectomes. The most recent research is designed to help therapists guide cognitive therapy for brain injured adults by rebuilding the connectomes.