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Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could create a map of the brain that lets doctors, scientists, and researchers know the different parts and how they work? Turns out we have created one. Complete this lesson to find out what brain mapping is and how it works.

What Is Brain Mapping?

Imagine twenty years ago you wanted to go on a road trip, before GPS technology was invented.

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You’d rely on a map to navigate from point A to point B, detour around road blocks, visit interesting scenery, and understand the terrain better. Brain mapping is very similar – it’s a technique used to show parts of the brain and how they work together. Although this may sound simple, like all things related to the brain, it’s a little complex!

Benefits of Brain Mapping

Scientists say the brain is like the internet. Right now, your brain has about as many neurons, or brain cells, as there are internet pages. The difference is, when you click on a link for pictures of cute kittens, the result is predictable and straightforward: you’ll be linked to thousands of images of cuddly felines. However, when neurons in the brain link up, thousands of different paths could be created, and not all of them are predictable.

So, creating a map of the brain can benefit science for several reasons.Brain mapping provides a solid understanding of the anatomy of the brain. Although we know more about the brain now than we ever have, it still contains many mysteries.

Brain maps have been used to distinguish the different parts of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex and primary motor cortex. Creating a map of the brain will also help us understand how humans learn. Finding out how our brains take in and process new information could lead to changes in our education system. New advances in brain mapping have shown that the brain is plastic, meaning changeable in this case. We once thought characteristics such as IQ were static, or unchanging, but they’re not.Brain mapping would also help doctors better understand injuries to the brain and other brain-related issues, like epilepsy or autism. It could aid brain surgeons, as well.

Some scientists even believe brain mapping could eventually help identify parts of the brain responsible for mental disorders, such as depression, bipolar disorder, and even schizophrenia, and lead to more effective treatments.

Tools for Brain Mapping

Creating a map of the brain helps scientists study the brain and what the various parts of the brain do. For example, they can see what areas are responsible for curiosity or laughter. Understanding what jobs these different regions of the brain perform is called localization of function.

One way scientists map the brain is to hook a subject up to a machine and watch as he or she performs different tasks. For example, they may ask him or her to sing a song. Scientists can get pretty specific when looking at localization of function; they may even notice different parts of the brain lighting up when the subject sings a lullaby compared to a rock song.Scientists use several tools and techniques to create brain maps, including:

  • The electroencephalograph, or EEG, which reads the electrical patterns of brain activity by means of electrodes that are placed on the subject’s scalp. These electrical impulses are then recorded on a graph for the doctor to read and interpret. Certain disorders can be detected this way, such as epilepsy or Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Positron emission tomography, or PET, which is an imaging test that involves injecting a radioactive substance with a special dye into the body. This substance is absorbed into the brain tissues, and can reveal diseases such as cancer during the scan.
  • Computer axial tomography, or CAT, which is a machine that takes an X-ray of the brain from several different points and angles, creating cross-sectional images. It can provide more detailed information than a standard X-ray.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, which is an imaging test that uses a magnetic field and radio wave energy to create detailed images of the brain.

New Brain Mapping Techniques

Scientists have recently developed an even clearer picture of how the brain works using tools and techniques to watch neurons interact in a living brain.

This branch of brain mapping is called connectomics. The Brainbow technique and ATLUM are two new advances in connectomics.Brainbow uses live animals to observe brain activity, where each neuron is labeled and stained with three or more fluorescent proteins, resulting in up to 90 different colors. Scientists use these different colors to map the neural pathways of the brain.

These images show scientists how neurons connect and change over time, and could provide new information on how brain disorders are formed.ATLUM, or automatic tape-collecting lathe ultramicrotome, is another recent method. Scientists take a brain from a mouse or small animal and use a super sharp tool to shave off layers in one long strip, much like peeling an apple.

They are then able to lay the specimen out and see neural circuits, like axons and dendrites, while they’re still connected.

Lesson Summary

Brain mapping may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but it’s actually being used by scientists today. Brain mapping may be described as the study of the specific regions of the brain and the tasks they perform, also known as localization of function. It uses machines like an EEG, MRI, or PET to map and understand the brain.

Newer techniques like Brainbow and ATLUM are giving an even more detailed view of how neurons work. Scientists use brain mapping for all kinds of things, from understanding the anatomy of the brain to figuring out how humans learn and use memory. It may even lead to effective treatments for mental disorders like schizophrenia.

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