How colour coding may reveal the workings of the brain

One of the challenges neuroscientists face is that, apart from being the most complex thing known to man, the brain is also relatively small. Studying the brain is therefore a bit like asking a first year electronics student to study the workings of a microchip.

Over the years there have been numerous attempts to "see" the workings of the brain using technologies such as electrocephalograms or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Now a team led by Prof Jeff Lictman of Harvard University have developed a technique that uses colour to identify different pasts of the brain.

By combining genetic tricks and fancy proteins, the team have labelled hundreds of thousands of individual brain cells with around 90 distinctive hues to create these stunning images that they call a "Brainbow"

Although the resulting images would not look out of place in an art gallery, it is believed that they will provide new insights into how the brain is wired.

The human body is a bit like a computer in that it is wired to pass signals from the brain cells, or neurons, to and from other organs and muscles in the body. By using the Brainbow technique, scientists can now label each nerve cell with its own unique mixture of blue, yellow, orange and red fluorescent proteins to reveal the vast networks of connections.

The Harvard team have already used the technique to study the nervous system of mice and, as a result, claim to have observed some interesting and previously unrecognised patterns of neuron arrangement.

It is hoped that by being able to study the wiring of the brain in this way, that the Brainbow technique will provide new insights into mental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia and neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's, other kinds of dementia and the human form of BSE, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD)

Click here to view a short video on Brainbows.

The original article on the Brainbow study can be purchased from the Nature Magazine web site. Click here for further details.

Published January 2009

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