By Delthia Ricks
The human brain, a 3-pound organ and source of symphonies, mathematics, politics, hate and crime, is often hailed as the most complex biological entity in the known universe.
Some scientists call it a universe itself, one of the last great frontiers.
In recent months, scientists have uncovered some of the brain’s deepest secrets. One team has revealed how sleeping posture is important to brain health. Another has elucidated the circuitry that is cued when confronted with something unexpected, how the brain reacts to the element of surprise. Both are providing new clues about the life‘s master organ.
The discoveries arrive only two years into a grand challenge by the Obama administration, which has called on neuroscientists to map the human brain. Most investigators had been racing all along, some searching for the switch that turns on dreams; others on the hunt for the causes of neurodegenerative disorders. One goal is to further demystify the organ’s bewildering circuitry, characterized by 100 billion connections among brain cells.
Biophysicist Partha Mitra of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a 2014 recipient of a Brain Initiative grant, said despite centuries of cumulative knowledge, more is known about some of the deepest reaches of the cosmos than regions within the labyrinths of the brain.
“I have said that many, many times,” noted Mitra, who is using his $300,000 grant to develop “conceptual and physical” tools to help neuroscientists better explore the brain. He is also leading the lab’s Mouse Brain Architecture Project, an ambitious effort to decipher how neurons, brain cells that underlie all higher function, connect.
In the human brain, he said, a single neuron through its branching projections can make up to 10,000 connections, contributing to the billions upon billions brainwide.
Yet, Mitra isn’t alone in his pursuit to peel away some of the brain’s mystery.