The human brain is more than just a clump of soft tissue made up of gray and white matter.
Thanks to invisible regions and their respective functions, the brain is the central "machine" that propels our consciousness — allowing us to recognize faces, remember names and solve complex problems, among many others.
Now, a spectacular new brain map is being hailed as the most detailed map of the brain's regions yet, as well as a huge milestone in the field of neuroscience, because it presents nearly 100 previously unknown areas. It's an "unprecedented glimpse" into the mechanisms of the human brain, experts say.
Scientists from the Washington University School of Medicine have laid out an incredible landscape of the brain's cerebral cortex or the outer layer composed of folded gray matter. This outer covering is the main structure involved in attention, sensory perception, language, use of tools and abstract thinking.
The first clues of the brain's hidden geography were hinted more than 150 years ago by Pierre Paul Broca who examined the brains of two of his dead patients.
Broca was intrigued as to why the two patients were unable to speak when they were still alive.
He then discovered that the outer layers of the brains had suffered damage to the same patch of tissue. This damaged region is now called Broca's region.
Recent studies have found that Broca's region becomes active when a person speaks and whenever there is an attempt to understand the speech of other people.
In 1907, a scientist named Korbidian Brodmann issued a hand-drawn catalog of 52 known brain regions, which has become the standard for scientists.
Mapping The Brain's Regions
In 2013, neuroscientist Matthew F. Glasser and his team at Washington University sought out to create an updated standard, drawing on data gathered by the Human Connectome Project, which included 1,200 volunteers who were examined with powerful scanners.
The project had recorded high-quality images of the brains of participants. Each brain's activity was recorded during hours of memory tests, language tests and other forms of thought.
With the help of the Human Connectome Project, scientists were able to study the brain and its intricacies, unlike previous studies that tended to focus on one evidence at a time.
Researchers then programmed a computer to identify discrete regions of the cerebral cortex. As soon as this was finished, they tested it on 210 brains.
In the end, the computer identified the regions in these other brains 96.6 percent of the time. Experts discovered that only a small amount of features was needed to map the brain.
The new brain map produced 83 known and familiar territories, including Broca's region. But it also identified 97 previously unknown or forgotten areas, researchers say.
"People tended to ignore it, and it was lost in the literature," says David C. Van Essen, the principal investigator of the project.
Brain Map Version 1.0
Now that the features of the brain are demarcated in painstaking details, scientists believe it will help in the study of brain disorders such as dementia, schizophrenia, epilepsy and autism.
Future researchers will be able to comprehend differences in the brains of people diagnosed with these brain disorders compared with other people who are not diagnosed.
It will also speed up progress in uncovering the workings of a healthy brain.
Van Essen says we should not expect easy answers and miracles, but the findings of the study may help accelerate progress.
Meanwhile, Glasser says the updated brain map is not the final word of the brain's workings.
"This map you should think of as version 1.0," says Glasser.
He says there will be a version 2.0 as more and more brain data emerge and more people look at the data. He hopes that the brain map will evolve as the science behind it grows.
Details of the new study are published in the journal Nature.