Harvard Gazette (March 9, 2011): Web-Crawling the Brain

Publication Date: 
Wed, 03/09/2011

The brain is a black box. A complex circuitry of neurons fires information through channels, much like the inner workings of a computer chip. But while computer processors are regimented with the deft economy of an assembly line, neural circuits are impenetrable masses. Think tumbleweed.

Researchers in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School have developed a technique for unraveling these masses. Through a combination of microscopy platforms, researchers can crawl through the individual connections composing a neural network, much as Google crawls web links.

"The questions that such a technique enables us to address are too numerous even to list," said Clay Reid, HMS professor of neurobiology and senior author on a paper reporting the findings in the March 10 issue of Nature.

The cerebral cortex is arguably the most important part of the mammalian brain. It processes sensory imput, reasoning, and some say, even free will. For the past century, researchers have understood the brain outline of cerebral cortex anatomy. In the past decade, imaging techniques have allowed us to see neurons at work within a cortical circuit, to watch the brain process information.