New Tools, New Knowledge
One of the keys to the development of the neurotechnology industry is advances in basic neuroscience, including enhanced understanding of the structure and function of the human brain. As we have witnessed many times over the years, advances in basic science have led directly to improvements in neurotech tools and therapies such as deep brain stimulation or EEG sensing. The converse is also true—each new generation of neurotech device has given basic scientists a deeper understanding of neuroanatomical and neurophysiological principles. The fields of brain-computer interfaces and optogenetics are just two examples of engineering advances driving pure research endeavors.
The recent report from Swedish researchers who have made progress building a nanocellulose scaffold for three-dimensional neural networks [see article, page 1] seems to offer a profound opportunity for both neuroscientists and neural engineers to create a workbench for testing the interaction of neural cells with pharmaceutical agents and electrical signals.
We were also intrigued by a report in Science from researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University, and UCLA who have elucidated the structure of brain fiber pathways as a continuous orthogonal grid. “Far from being just a tangle of wires, the brain’s connections turn out to be more like ribbon cables—folding 2D sheets of parallel neuronal fibers that cross paths at right angles, like the warp and weft of a fabric,” explained lead author Van Wedeen, of Massachusetts General Hospital, A.A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, and Harvard Medical School. “This grid structure is continuous and consistent at all scales and across humans and other primate species.”
The work was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the NIH Human Connectome Project, which may prove as meaningful to brain science as the Human Genome Project was to genomics. “Getting a high resolution wiring diagram of our brains is a landmark in human neuroanatomy,” said NIMH director Thomas Insel. “This new technology may reveal individual differences in brain connections that could aid diagnosis and treatment of brain disorders.”
As it turns out, findings from the study helped shape design specifications for a powerful new brain scanner, the Connectom diffusion magnetic resonance imaging scanner, which can visualize the networks of crisscrossing fibers—by which different parts of the brain communicate with each other—in 10-fold higher detail than conventional scanners.
We would not be surprised to see other new neurotech tools, and enhanced understanding of brain function, emerge from these examples of the confluence of neuroscience and neural engineering.
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