The American Association for the Advancement of Science: 'Brain-browser' gives 3-D map of a mind at work

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The Independent Online
A 'BRAIN-BROWSER' that guides you through a 3-D map of the brain of a rat has given scientists a model for plotting the workings of the human brain.

The browser, developed by Floyd Bloom, a neuroscientist from the Scripps Research Institute in California, holds more than three-quarters of what scientists know about the rat's brain inside a desktop computer.

The system shows a picture of the brain then, behind that, text describing the properties of the neurons at each location.

'It's as if the brain were a globe of the Earth. If you put your finger down on any place on the surface, the computer tells you not only the name of the place and its geographic co-ordinates, but also the kinds of people who live there and the television they watch, the food they eat, even the cars they drive,' Professor Bloom said.

The next step is to work out maps for more complicated brains, such as those in cats, monkeys and, ultimately, humans. One problem is that although one rat's brain is very similar to the next, the same is not true of people. 'Every individual processes information in a slightly different way, and the brain grows as part of the way in which it is used.'

The browser is an important first step in a huge science initiative (as yet unfunded) called the Human Brain Project. The idea is to build a three-dimensional map of the 'normal' human brain with the aid of computer images, then create a massive database of information on how the brain is organised, and what each part does.

One goal is to be able to spot brain disorders earlier. Professor Bloom told the annual meeting that once scientists had a clearer idea of how the normal brain functioned, they might be able to recognise those people starting to develop Alzheimer's disease at the age of 20 or 30, and start treating them then instead of having to wait until they showed outward signs of the disease at 50 or 60.

Ultimately, the human brain mapping initiative will seek to find out how we think, create, improvise and learn; and how diseases cause these processes to break down, leading to dementia, mania, memory loss, hallucinations and delusions.

Vinton Cerf, one of the computer scientists working on the project, said: 'If we are going to advance science, we had better understand how people learn, how our brains function and how we can feed those brains better with knowledge. We may then be able to take the broken brain and understand how to fix it.'