Why map brains?

How could we benefit from better brain maps?
We asked some experts what they think... 

Image: Allen Institute for Brain Science

Gosia Raczek

Gosia is a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. She researches neurodegeneration and brain imaging.

close-up portrait of dr gosia raczek

‘Advances in brain imaging techniques will be hugely helpful to improve our understanding of disease biology and identify potential treatment targets. It’s not enough just to understand the structural anatomy of the brain. We also need to study brain networks – how neurons connect up and function together. Mapping this network is probably the most exciting field in recent brain imaging. It’s a combination of medicine, neuroscience and maths.’ 

Ian Low

Ian is a consultant functional neurosurgeon at the Essex Neuroscience Centre, Queen’s Hospital in Romford. 

close-up portrait of dr low hu liang‘The effects of deep brain stimulation (DBS) on people with Parkinson’s disease vary from one person to the next. This is partly because there is no precise relationship between brain anatomy and function. Additionally, existing DBS tools are too crude to target the small nerve fibre bundles that precisely control body movement. Detailed brain maps can help us understand how different parts of the brain link to function, and how to better target DBS treatments.’

Kay Tye

Kay is a neurobiologist and Assistant Professor at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

kay tye standing behind apparatus on a laboratory benchImage: Nature/Dana Smith

‘With deep brain stimulation (DBS), you’re just poking around in the dark. Stimulating brain cells with light probes rather than electrical DBS probes would be a marked improvement. We can identify targets for more effective treatments, with fewer side effects, by using these new light-based tools to study specific elements in brain circuits. 

‘However, we have to do a lot more research to see how well the brain tolerates being genetically engineered with light-reactive proteins. It’s frightening to put something in your brain when you don’t yet know what the long-term effects are.’

Charles Lieber

Charles is the Mark Hyman, Jr. Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University. His team created the world’s first cyborg tissue.

charles lieber in a techy-looking lab'It’s hard to map brain activity in three dimensions. Cyborg tissue contains nano-scale silicon wires that weave among the cells. The wires are used to sense brain activity. Importantly, our nanowires are flexible. Flexible wires integrate easily within tissue. In the long term, implantable cyborg tissue could send electronic signals into and out of the brain. My vision is to use this to understand how disease affects brain activity and ultimately to correct it.’