In 1909, Korbinian Brodmann published a book that would change the way we all think about the brain. The book presented a way to subdivide the brain into different, distinct, areas. You can think of the brain in much the same way that you think about the continent of Europe.
At first glance, Europe, like the brain, looks like one homogenous entity with no reasonable way to subdivide it. However, as human groups settled in the land, each population developed its own characteristic features. As a result, if you look at a map of the European continent, you will see the boundaries that define different countries.
This is what Brodmann and his mentors Cecile and Oskar Vogt tried to do back in 1909. Their technique of cytoarchitectural parcellation (a fancy phrase for subdividing the brain into regions – or parcels – based on the cellular structure – or architecture) can be thought of as defining the ‘countries of the brain’.
However, as anyone with a very passing knowledge of history knows, country boundaries (or borders) are not fixed, neither are they uncontested. Indeed, within the Schengen region of Europe, it is very difficult to know where one country starts and the other one ends! In the 1950s, Percival Bailey and Gerhardt von Bonin claimed that dividing the brain using well-demarcated boundaries was misleading. Their principal claim was that while there were differences between one brain region and another, the boundaries between these regions are gradual.
Our group at the University of Malta has been working on computer software to analyse Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) data of the brain in order to address the criticism by Bailey and von Bonin. Our software (the Vogt-Bailey toolbox) uses ideas from a branch of mathematics called spectral graph theory to develop an objective way to measure the boundaries of the brain.
In February 2021, the Malta Council for Science and Technology (MCST) awarded the Boundaries of the Brain (BOB) grant to further develop these ideas.
The Boundaries of the Brain (BOB) Project is financed by the Malta Council for Science & Technology (MCST) through the Research Excellence Programme (grant no. REP2020005), for and on behalf of the Foundation for Science and Technology.
Claude Bajada and Christine Farrugia are from the Department of Physiology and Biochemistry; Kenneth Scerri is from the Department of Systems and Control Engineering, University of Malta.
• The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to three neuroscientists for the discovery of two new types of cells in the brain. In the 1960s, John O’Keefe discovered a type of cell that he called a “place cell”. This type of neuron activates when an animal is in a particular position in its environment; different place cells activate in different locations and help to build a map of the surroundings. Decades later, May-Britt and Edvard Moser discovered the “grid cell” – a type of cell that encodes the coordinates of space. Together, these cells can be thought of as the brain’s GPS!
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DID YOU KNOW?
• Your brain weighs approximately 1.3kg and it is the source of all of your experiences, conscious and unconscious.
• Your brain utilises about 20 per cent of your body’s energy, which is about the same amount of energy an old-fashioned light bulb uses.
• Your brain sits in a sack full of fluid. This cerebrospinal fluid acts as a shock absorber to prevent your brain getting damaged if you hit your head.
• Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners can be used to get detailed information about the structure and function of our brain. They use magnets that are powerful enough to lift a car off the ground to do this.
For more trivia, see: www.um.edu.mt/think.