1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

New brain atlases will unlock mysteries of the human mind

October 13, 2023

Groundbreaking studies unveil new details about the brain and what it's made of — a leap toward understanding brain diseases.

MRI scan of a mouse brain
The new, highly detailed atlases of healthy brains are crucial for understanding what happens in brain disease.Image: IMAGO/Cover-Images

In a massive effort to understand the human brain, scientists have revealed highly detailed atlases of the brain — published in a suite of 21 papers on October 12.

Ever wondered if your brain is just wired differently to others? You might be right. These new studies tackle how our brains operate at a cellular level.

Experts say the studies will help further our understanding of the brain and mind, and solve mysteries around diseases like Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, and depression.

"This collection of studies is an attempt to understand the human brain, and its development, on a much more detailed level. It focuses on the building blocks of the brain, starting with cells," said Joseph Ecker, a biologist at the Salk Institute, La Jolla, US, who led one of the 21 studies.

The studies are part of the US-led BRAIN Initiative, which aims to uncover the mysteries of the brain. It's one of several multi-billion-dollar projects around the world aimed at creating comprehensive brain atlases. These brain projects are neuroscience's version of the human genome project, which successfully mapped the first complete human genome in 2003, or NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, which is changing our understanding of the universe.

Don't we already have a map of the brain?

Anatomists have spent centuries creating atlases of the brain — mapping its subdivisions, folds (gyri) and grooves (sulci).

More recent techniques have revealed beautiful images of the cellular structure of the brain's inner regions.

Cross-section of a mouse hippocampus
A cross-section of the hippocampus in a mouse brain, with individual neurons shown in green. The hippocampus plays a major role in learning and memoryImage: IMAGO/BSIP/NIH/Image Point

But our understanding of the brain was fragmented. The anatomical maps lacked information about how the cells functioned. And this functional information lacked precise spatial details.

More recently, neuroscientists have turned their efforts to understanding how these brain cells, and the regions they are in, function — how they contribute to emotions, vision, or pain, or to disease states like schizophrenia or dementia.

"We didn't have a comprehensive view of a normal brain with enough detail to help us understand brain diseases. We're now getting closer to this," said Patrick Hof, a neuroscientist at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, US, who led one of the BRAIN Initiative studies.

Brain cell atlas provides unprecedented detail

What's new about this initiative is that it connects brain anatomy with cell function.

"It's a first dive into deeply understanding the human brain at the cellular level," Ecker told DW.

Each study helps create different cartographies of the brain, with each map providing complementary information about the brain. The maps tackle the brain at various scales — from genes, to cells, to cellular structures, to larger brain regions, and finally the brain as a whole.

These maps integrate our varied knowledge about the brain and will be critical for unraveling its complexity.

Ecker's study, for example, created a highly detailed map of gene expression in different cells types in the brain, creating "bar codes." He also tracked how they change during development. It highlighted the tremendous diversity of brain cells.

Hof's study, meanwhile, created a Google maps-like tool of Broca's area; a region of the motor cortex that controls speech and language.

A brain scan
Brain scans like these only provide crude information about the brain's function. New brain atlases on a cellular scale would improve the ability to diagnose and treat brain diseases in peopleImage: Knop et al., JNeurosci 2021/AFP

Treating brain diseases is the ultimate goal

While the BRAIN initiative is "blue sky science" aimed at open discovery, scientists hope the research will eventually help to understand and treat brain diseases.

"Treating diseases is absolutely our end goal. But to understand brain diseases, we first need to know what's happening in a normal brain. That's our aim here,” Hof told DW.

What's important, Hof said, is that we create atlases of the brain through its development — from fetal stages to old age. Only then can we fully understand what has gone wrong in a brain.

"It means we can understand what happens in developmental disorders like autism spectrum disorders, psychiatric diseases like depression and schizophrenia, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease," he told DW.

Ecker is also hopeful the studies will help create new applications to treat these diseases.

"It means we can create new tools to target the cell types that are affected in a certain disease. For example, it can help us to create better gene therapies that treat Alzheimer's disease. The treatments would be very specific," said Ecker.

Scientists working together

While the studies are helping to integrate our fragmented knowledge of the brain, the BRAIN initiative itself has helped integrate the fragmented neuroscientist community.

"It was both a scientific and cultural shift for so many neuroscientists to work together on a project the same scale as the human genome project. It's working pretty well and there really aren't any arguments. That's a story in itself," Ecker said.

Collaboration between other brain projects in the EU and Japan has also been successful, where open-access data and tools are helping scientists move towards the common goal of treating brain diseases.

"We are taking away boundaries between different disciplines in neuroscience. It's a tremendously important aspect that's opening doors to new discoveries," said Jan Bjaalie, a neuroscientist at the University of Oslo, Norway. He is the neuroinformatics leader of the EU-funded Human Brain Project, the European counterpart to the BRAIN initiative.

Bjaalie, who was not part of the 21 studies from the BRAIN Iniative, said they were an "outstanding contribution" to brain-mapping efforts.

The new studies are currently a first draft of the human brain. The BRAIN Initiative aims to present its first complete atlas of the mouse brain in early 2024, with the human brain to follow in later years.

"The reason for these brain projects is the same reason for our interest in the universe: it is curiosity driven, but also driven by the need to understand brain diseases," said Bjaalie.

Edited by: Sushmitha Ramakrishnan

DW journalist Fred Schwaller wears a white T-shirt and jeans.
Fred Schwaller Science writer fascinated by the brain and the mind, and how science influences society@schwallerfred