What's in a brain map?

In early 2013, US President Barack Obama announced that scientists will develop new ways to map the 86 billion neurons in your brain. How will they achieve this impressive feat? How will their research affect you?


Researchers are developing exciting new tools and techniques to create revolutionary brain maps. These maps will help them understand and treat diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and depression. What do some of these maps look like and what can scientists learn from them? 

Light through a fish eye

This is the world’s first whole-brain activity map. It shows what every single neuron is up to throughout an entire living brain. The orange regions indicate active neurones in a zebra fish brain as it reacts to the laser. These were recorded through a microscope, then laid over an image of the brain. 

world's first brain activity map of zebrafish brain
Image: Misha Ahrens and Philipp Keller 

Targeting genes

Brain maps like this show where particular genes are activated. The gene shown here makes a protein in the brain that limits signalling between neurons. Blue dots mean the gene is more active, red/orange dots mean it is less active. Comparing maps of gene activity can help scientists understand how genes affect brain function, and which genes make better targets for drugs.

gene expression map of wellbutrin drug targets
Image: Allen Institute for Brain Science 

Mapping your brain’s highways

This is a map of the fastest major connection fibres in the front section of a human brain. Recording active brain connections as people complete fixed tasks can help scientists understand how the brain achieves those tasks. This understanding could lead to more effective treatments for motor control diseases like Parkinson’s.

brain connectome map that looks like a jellyfish
Image: The Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at UCLA and Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH, Consortium of the Human Connectome Project 

What's in a brain map? was developed with kind assistance from the Gatsby Foundation, Kavli Foundation and Allen Institute for Brain Science.

This exhibit is part of the programme supporting the Who am I? gallery. Who am I? is supported by Principal Funder: Wellcome Trust and Major Sponsors: GlaxoSmithKline and Life Technologies Foundation.