Last night's Secret Science Club lecture featured Dr Partha Mitra of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, speaking about his inquiries into the architecture of the brain.
Architecture? Brains? Sounds like this post should be on another blog. Enough of my joking, here's a brief summary of Dr Mitra's talk, with a couple of smartass asides...
Much of the brain's functions deal with the analysis of sensory information, and with locomotion, both crucial to survival and successful reproduction. In an extreme illustration of the "brain's" role, when a free-swimming larval sea squirt settles into a sessile adulthood, it's cerebral ganglion atrophies.
While single neuron analysis is very good, the analysis of the brain as a whole has been inadequate. The "brainscape", the architecture of the mass of neurons in your skull is largely terra incognita. One theoretical model for the brain is the "chemical soup" model, which emphasizes the importance of neurotransmitters. The "place theory" point of view stresses anatomical features of the brain. Neither approach is fully adequate to an understanding of the workings of the brain.
While studying the brain, any analogous structures resulting from convergent evolution would point to adaptive significance of said structures.
Mice are the typical laboratory subjects in mammalian brain studies- the Allen Brain Atlas has a plethora of information regarding the mouse brains (though, oddly enough, no studies have been made of the brains of evil supergenius mice).
Dr Mitra is also involved in an arts project, producing sculptures inspired by the structure of the brain.
After the lecture, some bastard in the audience raised the issue of plasticity in the brain. While the underlying "architechture" of the brain is important, there is some degree of plasticity.
All told, while we have come a long way from the glory days of phrenology, there's a lot of work needed before the architechture of the brain is well understood. Dr Mitra indicated that this had been a hot topic back in the 70's but had largely been "shelved". Here's wishing him well in his endeavors- without understanding the structure of the brain, how could we possibly be able to surgically remove it for travels throughout space?