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New Brain Map May Show Origins of Mental Illness

First Posted: Sep 16, 2015 11:24 AM EDT
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Duke University scientists have completed a highly detailed model of the connections in the brain of a mouse that may provide a completely new look at the brain circuits and origins of mental illnesses, like depression and schizophrenia.

The study, published in Cerebral Cortex, showed that by performing an MRI scan on a healthy mouse, researchers were able to create a connectome, a map of the brain's circuitry. The team acquired data through diffusion MRI, which traces the nerve fiber pathways of the brain, called axons.

"Interest in structural brain connectivity has grown with the understanding that abnormal neural connections play a significant role in neurologic and psychiatric diseases," G. Allan Johnson, director of the Duke Center for In Vivo Microscopy, said. "Examining brain connectivity in small animals can help us better identify problems in the diseased brain, and apply that knowledge to humans." 

The scan was done at a spatial resolution 100,000 times greater than a conventional scan, which grants the team 1,000 times the precision of any previous diffusion scans done on mice, according to Health Canal.

"Prior approaches to provide maps of the mouse brain have relied on fluorescent dyes injected into the brain," Johnson said. "The brain is then cut in thin slices, digitized and put back together again in a computer. It's pretty tedious." 

Researchers made a connectivity matrix, charting each region of the brain, and its connectivity to other structures in the brain. Thanks to high-powered computers, the scientists were able to capture and house this data, which was previously considered impractical.

These advancements could provide new avenues of research into the human brain, and could allow scientists and researchers to delve deeper into the origins of mental illnesses, which would in turn provide better treatments of them. These maps could provide a way for a better overall understanding of the human brain, and how it operates.

The team is currently attempting to build an online portal that would allow scientists around the world to access the digital files and guide their own research, according to the press release.

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