Visualizing the Symphony in the Brain

Image from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Image from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Researchers at UChicago are using advanced computation to understand the symphony of electrical activity in the brain.

It’s hard to comprehend all the amazingly complex things we can do with the wrinkly lump of flesh inside our heads. Clearly there’s more to it than the activity of individual neurons, just like there’s more to a symphony performance that the notes played by a single violinist. But for the longest time, tracking a single neuron at a time was the best scientists could do.

On the Computation Institute’s blog, Rob Mitchum writes about research by Nicholas Hatsopoulos to use advanced computation to go beyond individual neurons and visualize the entire symphony taking place in our brains:

But a brain doesn’t work like a piano, where activating one neuron automatically contracts one muscle somewhere in the body. The vast range of motions possible for a body require control by a complicated neural code, one that can’t possibly be deduced from the activity of a single neuron. So Hatsopoulos’ laboratory turned to ensemble recording using a microscopic panel of 100 electrodes squeezed into a 4mm square space. Instead of one neuron at a time, the panel could record from over 100 neurons simultaneously, giving the researchers a broader view of the neural activity happening in that small patch of the brain.

“It’s a window into looking at large-scale spatiotemporal patterns almost impossible to see with single neurons, ” Hatsopoulos said. “Neurons are not sitting in isolation, they’re in a network, so we need to study these large-scale patterns.”

Science Life spoke to Hatsopoulos and postdoc Aaron Suminski last year about how they’re building software algorithms that could improve reaction times for animals controlling a prosthetic limb via a brain machine interface. It sounds like something straight out of Pacific Rim, but given the technical advances Hatsopoulos and the folks at the CI have been making, it’s not that far from reality in humans.

About Matt Wood (491 Articles)
Matt Wood is a senior science writer for the University of Chicago Medicine and editor of the Science Life blog.
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