THE BLOG
08/24/2016 01:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Connecting Every Neuron: The Future Of Brain-Mapping And Illness Discovery

The brain has been a mythologized artifact of humanity for as long as we can remember. You've seen its raw potential epitomized in sci-fi films, its grace harnessed by artists, and its endless future encapsulated by scientists. We've barely cracked the surface of its depths, and there are several years of research before we can pat ourselves on the back. That's not to say our current achievements are lackluster - quite the opposite, actually. We've come so far the avenue for continued study is immense.

Many of our goals regarding the brain require one thing -- a full understanding of the connections between our brains' neurons. If we ever wish to fulfill our desire of understanding thought, or illnesses like schizophrenia or autism, we need to map every signal sent between all of the neurons in the brain. And we just have. Get ready for an unprecedented amount of cranial detail.

The new technique, called an MAP-sequence, is a revolution to current standards of mapping neuronal connections. Today, we use pigmented proteins and ridiculously expensive microscopes to see what parts of a patient's brain are firing whenever they visualize a certain thought or desire. That technique isn't wrong or outmoded - in fact it makes a lot of sense. If you can begin to associate the color of a protein with a certain region or function of the brain, we can immediately know what a patient is doing, thinking, or saying when a color pops up under the microscope.

Unfortunately this technique is slow and tedious. The weight of these disadvantages burden understaffed research facilities, and this kind of research seems necessary but impractical. This is where an MAP sequence saves the day. It's ease and utility clears the once obstructed path of neuronal studies.

MAP-sequencing uses a giant library of viruses that contain random RNA sequences. This database is encapsulated in a mixture that's then injected into the brain, where approximately one virus enters one neuron, such that each neuron has its own RNA barcode. Think of a huge dictionary, where a single word maps to a particular neuron. A DNA sequencer can then read the barcodes, and we can form a matrix that shows how a single neuron maps to every other. A connected graph of every neuron in the brain, all in the time it took to drink a cup of coffee. Pretty neat.

The beautiful thing about this technology is that when we think about illnesses like autism or schizophrenia, or more broadly, something as abstract as thought itself, our inability to fully understand these issues stem from brain connectivity issues, making this kind of research priceless. It's almost as if we've been studying the brain for the last twenty years without a proper diagram of its wiring, and someone has just handed us a blueprint of its entire circuitry. The possibilities abound, but for starters, we can now discern the true origin of schizophrenia, pinpoint the handful of neurons that are faulty, develop fool-proof medicine, or potentially even deactivate the corrupted brain cells. All of this stems from a crucial set of cerebral details engendered by this research.

brain

This technology is truly ground-breaking, but I hope it doesn't distract us from the true nature of human consciousness. Next time you ponder your ambitions, desires, or even your upcoming Netflix binge, smile at the fact that your body wields a tissue whose origin and functionality are incomprehensibly infinite. The future is bright, but solving this dilemma will only spawn more mysteries about the brain, and we should be OK with that.

A reality of science is understanding that the more we peer and examine, the more our studies elude us. There's something eerily beautiful about that, and I hope it inspires fear, curiosity, and most of all, determination, in everyone. Just because the number of questions ahead seem endless, it doesn't mean we can't answer most of them.

Till next time,
Nikhil