You don’t have to be a neurosurgeon to know that the human brain is quite complex. However, the average layperson is usually unfamiliar with just how intricate the brain really is. Or, at the same time, just how difficult it can be for modern science to investigate a living human brain.
Fiction typically paints an MRI as a microscope that can peer directly into individual neural connections. The reality is that most existing techniques are only able to perceive neurological function at a very imprecise level. The main difficulty is that while a brain is large, the most important aspect of it is the individual neurons. One can almost imagine a brain as a beach, with every grain of sand of great importance. Especially those grains buried beneath the surface.
Groundbreaking research from scientists at the University of Southampton may dramatically change all this. The researchers have devised a method of tagging individual neurons within a living brain. The breakthrough comes from using viral vectors to inject new instructions into brain cells. An individual virus is manipulated to remove it’s own instructions, and instead carry genetic code to create a variety of different tags which are easily identifiable by scientists or doctors.
These vectors are then given access to specific parts of the brain. They immediately inject their genetic payload into the nearest individual neuron. At that point, the tag will be produced by the neuron, and any daughter cells of that neuron. This will also allow one to directly observe synaptic connections between cells which express the new instructions. While this discovery is still new, it has the potential to open the door to a variety of different models of research. Almost any neurological disorder has the potential for breakthroughs due to this new method of investigating the brain. I hope I won’t have to go to the Amen Clinic after all this brain function!