New Imaging Reveals Unexpected Order in the Brain

This detail from a DSI scan shows a fabric-like 3-D grid structure of connections in a monkey brain. Credit: Van Wedeen, M.D., Martinos Center and Dept. of Radiology, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University Medical School

National Institute of Mental Health Director Thomas R. Insel, M.D. calls the image above “a high resolution wiring diagram of our brains.” Well, sort of, but I won’t fault the guy for reaching for a bit of overstatement in order to produce a pithy soundbite, and what the team has accomplished is pretty dang amazing.

What you’re looking at in the picture above is diffusion spectrum imaging (DSI) of the neuronal pathways of a monkey brain. This is the “wiring” in question, and it was once commonly believed to be an unordered system akin to a bowl of spaghetti. Instead, the new imaging discussed in this story has shown that the pathways are in fact laid out in a grid, and cross at right angles. This isn’t visible because of the folds in the brain, but with the help of algorithms and improved imaging, the team was able to “unfold” the wiring, revealing a network more akin to a piece of woven fabric.

Now, this isn’t the fabled “wiring diagram” because, as the story points out, “The technology used in the current study was able to see only about 25 percent of the grid structure in human brain. It was only apparent in large central circuitry, not in outlying areas where the folding obscures it. But lessons learned were incorporated into the design of the newly installed Connectom scanner, which can see 75 percent of it.”

Nonetheless, the results are impressive:

Wedeen’s team is part of a Human Connectome Project Harvard/MGH-UCLA consortium that is optimizing MRI technology to more accurately to image the pathways. In diffusion imaging, the scanner detects movement of water inside the fibers to reveal their locations. A high resolution technique called diffusion spectrum imaging (DSI) makes it possible to see the different orientations of multiple fibers that cross at a single location – the key to seeing the grid structure.

In the current study, researchers performed DSI scans on postmortem brains of four types of monkeys – rhesus, owl, marmoset and galago – and in living humans. They saw the same 2D sheet structure containing parallel fibers crossing paths everywhere in all of the brains – even in local path neighborhoods. The grid structure of cortex pathways was continuous with those of lower brain structures, including memory and emotion centers. The more complex human and rhesus brains showed more differentiation between pathways than simpler species.

Naturally, the team looks at this masterpiece of order where only chaos was once supposed, and explains its order as a wholly anticipated result of evolution. If the study had revealed the “spaghetti” model of neuronal pathways, then its chaos would have been explained as a result of evolution. God has given us the glorious tools of intellect and reason to explore the wonders of his creation, and continued to raise up minds capable of revealing that wonder in new and astonishing ways, and those same minds insist on waving away the evidence of their own senses.

The materialists look at that image and see evidence of spontaneous order out of chaos, initiated and guided by nothing more than chance. They describe the neuronal network as something akin to a piece of fabric, and then insist it is a piece of fabric that wove itself.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.