June 22, 2005

Mapping Neuron Connections in the Brain

The human brain contains from 10 to 100 billion neurons, and each has hundreds of connections with neighboring neurons. Making sense of these intricate connections is essential to understanding brain function, and the task is a monumental one.

Thanks to a new theoretical approach to mapping neuron connectivity published in PLoS Computational Biology by Bagrat Amirikian, a researcher at the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Minnesota, the task is now feasible. In the past, mapping connections between neurons was limited to either highly simplified formulations or tedious experimental methods requiring precise three-dimensional reconstructions of neuron arbors, tremendously branched structures formed by neurons.

Part of the difficulty in mapping lies in the complex structure of arbors. Amirikian has improved on past methods by developing a theoretical framework requiring only two-dimensional drawings of arbors. Such drawings are already available in the neuroscience literature for many types of neurons. With this method, neuron connection maps could be used to create computer simulations of neural circuits involving tens of thousands of neurons with biologically realistic connections--and provide a practical way to begin untangling the mysteries of the brain.

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