Welcome to Brain Bits, where I highlight important or interesting recent news in the world of neuroscience. In store for today: why every brain cell may be unique, a call for national brain observatories, simulating your brain in a supercomputer, and more!
In 2012, a group of six prominent neuroscientists proposed a large-scale brain mapping project that formed the basis for President Obama’s BRAIN initiative, which thus far has mainly funded individual labs. In a new proposal published in Neuron, the same six scientists propose the creation of a national network of neurotechnology centers, or “brain observatories”. Many aspects of studying the brain require expensive and sophisticated new technologies. The scientists argue that federally funded centers would be better suited than individual labs to systematically develop and maintain these cutting-edge technologies, which would advance the field as a whole. Sounds good to me, except for the part where we need an extra $50 million per year from the government.
My brilliant friend Kelly Clancy wrote a great piece for the New Yorker about how every neuron in your brain may be genetically unique. Until recently, scientists thought that all the cells in your body contain the same set of DNA; it’s how they use it that makes them different. But recent work suggests that transposons—little pieces of DNA that jump around, potentially wreaking havoc on the rest of your genes—may make the DNA of every cell a bit different. Read Kelly’s piece for more about what this might mean for the brain. And when you’re done, read her other work here.
Remember when I told you that there was a tiny worm called C. elegans whose nervous system was entirely mapped at the level of every single neuron? Yeah, turns out the scientists kinda jumped the gun on that one. A recent Nature paper identified two previously unknown neurons present only in male worms. These neurons play a role in the ability of males to associate chemical cues with potential mates, a learning process that helps them find mating partners. Non-technical summary here.
For ten years, the Blue Brain Project, a large-scale collaborative project led by neuroscientist Henry Markram, has been attempting to build a computer simulation of the brain. This project has been extremely controversial (as this 2012 article details), by which I mean that many scientists think it’s completely insane. But now Markram and colleagues have published the first results from their project in Cell: a reconstruction of a small piece of rat brain. Their simulation, which includes 31,000 neurons and 37 million synapses (connections between neurons), is based on experimental data about the shapes and properties of all the neurons in this brain region. Their model recapitulates many aspects about how this part of the brain is known to function, and sets the stage for performing many more digital “experiments” to probe brain function. The paper is massive and I’ll admit I only skimmed it; I recommend the much more manageable summaries from Nature or the New York Times.
The Guardian published an article about the role science may have played in the recent Canadian presidential election, which witnessed the end of Stephen Harper’s nearly ten-year reign as prime minister. (Yes, fellow Americans, this was a big thing that just happened.) The article describes how Harper’s anti-science policies, which have incited many protests by scientists over the last couple years, caused science to become a major campaign issue. The newly elected Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party promise to end the government’s “war on science”.
Did you see any recent neuroscience news that you’d like to share? Leave a comment below!