The brain is a complex "biological machine" made up of neural networks with different regions that each perform a certain function.
Just like tinkering with the underpinnings of a computer, scientists at the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Science are working to understand how exactly the brain works and what makes it tick.
Mysteries Of The Human Consciousness
On Wednesday, July 13, the institute launched a new observatory known as the Allen Brain Observatory, designed specifically for the study of the brain.
"The Allen Brain Observatory is to biology what an astronomical observatory is to astronomy," says neuroscientist Christof Koch, the institute's president and chief scientific officer.
"Think of it as a telescope, but a telescope that is looking at the brain," adds Koch, who is also the creator of the observatory.
Koch says the goal is that thousands of scientists from anywhere in the world will look through this "telescope" and help unravel mysteries of the human consciousness.
For instance, we can see our family's faces and we can see what's being shown on the TV screen.
But how exactly does our brain create images from the muddled stream of visual information coming from the external world? That is what researchers wanted to find out.
Studying The Brains Of Mice
There is no easy way to study the human brain while it processes visual information.
This is why the observatory has been collecting extensive amounts of data on mice. Fortunately, mice possess a visual system that is very similar to that of humans.
The mice in the study were allowed to watch a classic film noir by the prominent director Orson Welles. These mice were initially genetically altered so that a computer could monitor the activity of about 180,000 neurons in their brain.
The lab animals ran on a wheel while watching the film, similar to how one runs on a treadmill at the gym while watching TV. The animals also ran on the wheel as still images were presented for their viewing.
Koch says scientists can look at the neurons and decode what goes through the mind of the mice.
How Mice Brain Responded To Visual Information
The neurons were active when the animals watched first few minutes of the film "Touch Of Evil." Researchers chose this film because it is black and white, has nice contrasts, and contains a long, uninterrupted shot.
At one point in the film, the camera follows two people through the streets of a border town in Mexico. As the mouse looks at the action on screen, its brain activity changes in response to the images.
For instance, brain cells that usually respond to vertical lines began firing as the couple goes past a building with vertical columns, scientists said.
But this response is only a small part of the entire brain system that allows mice to create a mental map of its world.
Additionally, when scientists flashed 120 still, natural images to the mouse, its brain cells lit up upon seeing the black and white photo of a butterfly.
The results of this first research are published in the observatory's website. Anyone with an internet connection can access and see the findings.
Researchers say by making the data available publicly, scientists can test their own ideas about the mechanism behind perception, experience and consciousness.
Koch says they expect that other scientists will uncover things they themselves never suspected.
Watch the video below to know more about the research.