The Extraordinary Thinking Machine

No Sweeter Smell


Heady times are on the horizon for brain research with efforts underway across the globe. As a leading partner in the U.S. BRAIN Initiative, launched in 2013, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is advancing fundamental research of the brain’s structure, activity, and function. NSF also plays an integral role in efforts to coordinate large brain projects in various countries with an aim of launching a Global Brain Initiative.

To mark Brain Awareness Week (March 13-19), the following images showcase some of the NSF-funded tools and insights that are deepening the understanding of the 3 pound parallel processor that sits atop our shoulders.

Simple brains offer insights into the more complex human brain. At left, pink and green highlight the fruit fly’s center of smell.

Not Such a Harebrained Idea
In California tide pools, slithery sea hares like this one create ink-laden smoke screens for protection. In the lab, they create opportunities for discovery. As a model system, the humble sea hare’s brain is relatively simple, composed of about 20,000 neurons that grow throughout its lifetime.

Researchers are using the sea hare model to learn about individual cells function, discover the chemical pathways controlling various brain activities and to study how memories are processed and stored.

Understanding how to control specific chemicals could advance new ways to diagnose and treat chronic pain, drug addiction, and neurological diseases.

Quiet Body, Active Mind
New optical imaging tools are providing unprecedented views of brain processes. One such technique produced these rainbow brain lobes of a mouse, another popular system researchers use to study the brain. The colors reflect the vivid synchronized patterns of neural activity in a mouse at rest.

This research marks the first time brain activity and blood flow was simultaneously imaged. The work provides a completely new view of brain activity and could lead to a better understanding of how various brain regions interact.  The work also lays a foundation for pursuing new treatments for various neurological diseases.

A Bundle of Nerves
About a third of a millimeter in diameter, this mini-brain offers a 3-D alternative to cells growing in a petri dish. It’s cheap, costing about 25 cents to make, and relatively easy to grow. The brain begins forming a day after its seeds are planted and develop complex 3-D nerve networks within two to three weeks. A small sample of living tissue from a single rodent can make thousands of mini-brains.

The mini-brain lasts about a month and it could be used to study a range of challenges in neuroscience including transplanting nerve cells that could help treat Parkinson’s disease and studies on how adult nerve stem cells develop.
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