Monday, April 30, 2012

Form and Function: Architecture of the Brain

I recently wrote a News & Views article for the journal Nature Neuroscience.  It was my first primary-author paper as a grad student and I'm super excited about it.  However, it's hard to share this with all my friends and family because 1) the article is behind a paywall, and 2) it was written for neuroscientists, not a general audience.  So, I've decided to present a simplified, free version here!  If you want to check out the actual article, as well as the original research that is summarized, they're both available on the Nature Neuroscience website.

To put the topic of the article in the most extremely generalized way possible:  What can we tell about something from how it looks?

Examples of neuronal architecture, as drawn by
Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the father of neuroanatomy
Form & Function 

We can examine the teeth of a great white shark and assume that it's a vicious predator.  Or we can see a giraffe's long neck and suspect that it needs to reach high places to survive.  Structure often gives us many clues about function.  And this is true in neuroscience too.  A neuron with a broad, elaborate arbor of processes (see right) is more likely to receive and integrate diverse information than a neuron with only a few simple processes.  

However, the story of form & function is usually much more complicated.  Especially when dealing with heterogeneous populations -- groups of neurons with distinct properties all living