Sunday, July 14, 2024

Mouse brain research is helping us better understand human minds

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Google researchers recently unveiled the largest, most detailed map of the human brain yet. It described just 1 cubic millimeter of brain tissue — the size of half a grain of rice — but at high enough resolution to show individual neurons and their connections to each other, and required 1.4 petabytes of data to encode.

Although it’s only a tiny sliver of the brain, the map led to several surprising discoveries. “For example, we found some of the wires will wrap themselves into these giant knots,” Google Research Scientist Viren Jain says of the neurons. “We have no idea why — nobody’s ever seen it before.”

Now, Viren and his team have got mice on the brain. And for good reason — these mammals may help solve mysteries about our minds that have eluded us since our beginnings. Mysteries like: How are memories stored and retrieved? How do we recognize objects and faces? Why do we need so much sleep? And what goes wrong in Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases?

“One reason we don’t have answers to these questions is that we don’t yet have the data we need in order to study the brain,” Viren says.

The human brain has about 86 billion neurons connected to each other by more than 100 trillion synapses that enable you to think, feel, move and interact with the world. By creating a map of these neural connections — known as a “connectome” — we can unlock new understanding about how our brains work, and why sometimes they don’t.

To build detailed maps at the synaptic level, researchers need to image the brain at nanometer resolution and work with massive amounts of data. It’s a significant technical challenge that requires continued innovation in imaging techniques, AI algorithms and data management tools. That’s why, 10 years ago, Google Research formed its Connectomics team.



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