Indian American neuroscientist leading research to map out brain cells

Narayanan Kasthuri (Courtesy: University of Chicago)

Narayanan Kasthuri, an Indian American assistant professor of neurobiology and researcher at the University of Chicago, in association with the Argonne National Laboratory, is combining new techniques in microscopy, neurobiology and computing to reveal the brain’s inner mechanisms in unprecedented detail.

According to a press release, in the abstract, the brain is an electrochemical computer, operating on electrical impulses and chemical signals sent between cells.

Though the individual pieces may be small, on the scale of mere nanometers, drawing the wiring diagram for this machinery is theoretically possible, and has been done for very simple organisms, but the size and complexity of the human brain create far bigger challenges.

Scientists estimate that the brain contains nearly 100 billion neurons and each of those neurons makes tens of thousands of contacts with other cells, bringing the number of connections into the quadrillions, or a million billion.

The report says that by doing so, a complete map of these connections would be nothing less than the largest dataset ever created that could answers to some of the most elusive scientific questions: the fundamental rules of cognition, explanations for many mental illnesses and even the biological factors that separate humans from other animals.

“It’s a huge theory of neuroscience that all of our behaviors, all of our pathologies, all of our illnesses, all of the learning that we do, is all due to changes in the connections between brain cells,” Kasthuri said.

But to map an entire human brain, at least 300,000 microscopic images would be required and even reconstructing a small three-dimensional brain region from these snapshots requires roughly the same supercomputing power it takes to run an astronomy simulation of the universe.

“At most other universities, I’d just have to give up this idea. Even a small part of a brain I could never map, because even 1 percent of a mouse brain is something like 1,000 terabytes of data. No other university in the world, I think, could conceivably handle that,” he continued.

To reduce this complexity into more practical science, Kasthuri is starting small by focusing on comparisons between young brains and old, animal brains and human brains, and “normal” brains and “crazy” brains.

“I think the only way we’re going to understand the brain is by comparing it to other things,” he added.