Recently there’s been a push from many leading governments to “figure out the brain.”  Whether it be Obama’s recent brain initiative, or the European commission for the Human Brain Initiative, it seems that wealthy governments are starting to recognize the importance for understanding the brain.

In the coming years you’ll probably hear a lot about “functional connectivity”, “anatomic mapping”, “calcium imaging”, and a bunch of other crazy sounding names. In this series of blog posts, I’ll explore some of these ideas in order to make sense of the crazy questions that neuroscientists are asking.  This first post will dive into one of the oldest, yet one of the most exciting topics within neuroscience: anatomy and connectivity.

Low-scale Anatomy

Probably the most obvious question that one might ask about the brain is “what kinds of things are in the brain and where are they?”  If you asked yourself this question, then you have the makings of an anatomist!  Low-scale anatomy looks at cells within a brain (often after it has been frozen, sliced, or otherwise maimed), and determines whether their pattern and type corresponds to interesting structures in a particular region.

Diving into the structure of brains makes you realize that there’s a lot of diversity across even a single millimeter of tissue.  For example, did you know that regions of the cortex, believed to be a major computational engine of the brain, are actually organized in layers?  Check out this image by Ramon y Cajal, one of the most famous neuroscientists (and also a pretty great artist):

See how the cell density, structure, and general organization changes as you move up the picture?  This is seen throughout the surface of your entire brain, and there are all kinds of theories as to what this so-called “laminar” structure of the brain actually means.  Some believe that signals come in through one layer, and are sent out through another.  Others think that different layers contain different kinds of information.  However, all agree that understanding the low-level of organization in the brain is essential to understanding the brain.