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Networks of the Brain

Posted By Lisa Kimball, Thursday, July 21, 2011

A few years back, scientists discovered that London taxi drivers have a form of navigation system in their brains. Cabbies navigated a virtual simulation of various routes through the streets of London while their brains were scanned via Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging(fMRI). According to the BBC report on research conducted by Dr Hugo Spiers from University College London, "Different brain regions were activated as they considered route options, spotted familiar landmarks or thought about their customers." Maybe that voice in our heads is our own personal version of the voice on our GPS?

Jeffrey Lehrer, author of Proust Was A Neuroscientist and How we Decide noted in his blog that the latest consumer technologies have a way of becoming metaphors for the mind. "Before the brain was a binary code running on three pounds of cellular microchips, it was an impressive calculator, or a camera, or a blank slate. In other words, we're constantly superimposing the gadgets of the day onto the cortex." In that context, understanding the brain as a GPS system makes sense.

Brain Network 1It's not surprising, therefore, that the current prevailing metaphor seems to be the network.

An article in ScienceDaily (Mar. 8, 2011) reports research that suggests that "the human brain operates as a highly interconnected small-world network, not as a collection of discrete regions as previously believed." Research published in the Journal of Neuroscience describes the relationship of the brain's neural networks and specific cognitive functions such as information processing and language.

Just last week, another report in Science Daily referenced an article in the journal Cerebral Cortex, showing that the brain is characterized by a highly consistent, weighted network among the functional areas of the cortex, which are responsible for such functions as vision, hearing, touch, movement control and complex associations. Maria Ercsey-Ravasz and Zoltan Toroczkai of the University of Notre Dame's Interdisciplinary Center for Network Science and Applications (iCeNSA), suggest that researchers have given up on the potential of using computer circuitry as a helpful metaphor. "It turns out the brain is not just this beautiful circuitry you could just back-engineer," Toroczkai says. "It is an amazingly complex system, and this is why it is very hard to understand why it works."

Brain Network 2

The Organization for Human Brain Mapping sponsors international efforts to pull together people working in many different mapping modalities to create network maps of the brain. The creation of a complete connection map, which Olaf Sporns from Indiana University at Bloomington has called the human connectome, is currently underway. According to Sporns, "Understanding the human brain is one of the great scientific challenges of the 21st century" The purpose of the connectome is decipher the amazingly complex wiring diagram to reveal what makes us uniquely human and what makes every person different from all others. "The HCP will comprehensively map human brain circuitry in 1,200 healthy adults using cutting-edge methods of noninvasive neuroimaging. It will yield invaluable information about brain connectivity, its relationship to behavior, and the contributions of genetic and environmental factors to individual differences in brain circuitry."

Dr. Sporns new book, Networks of the Brain was published in February. "There's a big movement all across the social and natural sciences to look at things in terms of networks. In the neurosciences, increasingly we aren't looking at only one part of the brain, but seeing how the interactions between different parts make them work together," explains Sporns.

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