A New Map of the Brain: What Does It Mean?

By Neuroskeptic | July 23, 2016 8:41 am

A new Nature paper has earned a lot of media attention, unusually given that it’s a fairly technical and ‘basic’ piece of neuroscience. In the paper, researchers Matthew F. Glasser and colleagues present a new parcellation (or map) of the human cerebral cortex, breaking the cortex down into 180 areas per hemisphere – many more than conventional maps.

But is this, as Nature dubbed it, “the ultimate brain map“?

To generate their map, Glasser et al. first downloaded 210 people’s data from the Human Connectome Project (HCP), including structural MRI, several task-based fMRI sessions, and resting-state fMRI. Then, they averaged the brains and calculated the spatial derivative (gradient) of various metrics across the cerebral cortex. So for instance, one of the structural metrics was myelin content; the myelin gradient shows areas where myelin content differs between neighboring regions.


Glasser et al. looked for areas where two or more metrics both showed high gradients (“ridges”) in the same place, and then used a semi-automated process (involving some manual input) to designate these ridges as region boundaries, and partition the cortex accordingly.

The result is a patchwork quilt of 180 different cortical areas, here shown color-coded according to their broad functional specialization:


Moreover, Glasser et al. developed an automated tool – an ‘areal classifier’ – to allow the parcellation of any individual brain according into these 180 regions, which could be a boon to e.g. fMRI analysis. The authors say that the areal classifier will be freely released soon; however, it seems to require that the data includes a series of structural and fMRI scans similar to those found in the HCP, which might limit its usage.

This is a really cool piece of work. However, it’s unlikely to be the definitive map of the cortex (and the authors don’t claim that it will be.) Glasser et al. say that their map probably underestimates the true number of distinct cortical areas, and that future research might subdivide the cortex even further.

Another issue is that Glasser et al. didn’t include any diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI) data in their study. DWI is an MRI technique which reveals the locations and directions of white-matter pathways in the brain, the brain’s “communication fibres”. It will be interesting to see whether a DWI-based parcellation ends up matching with Glasser et al.’s or whether it reveals something different.

ResearchBlogging.orgGlasser MF, Coalson TS, Robinson EC, Hacker CD, Harwell J, Yacoub E, Ugurbil K, Andersson J, Beckmann CF, Jenkinson M, Smith SM, & Van Essen DC (2016). A multi-modal parcellation of human cerebral cortex. Nature PMID: 27437579

CATEGORIZED UNDER: fMRI, methods, papers, select, Top Posts
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Reductionism has never succeeded in identifying where or how the parts sum to a whole. One can blunt dissect a whole brain to eventually have nothing remaining. One cannot emulate its operation with a model when given the parts.

    Who would have imagined Broca’s area would evince “most human linguistic abilities are not localized in this region” in 72 journal pages, doi:10.1017/S0140525X00002399, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 23(1) 1 (2000).

    • matt

      Reductionism has NOT YET succeeded… we’ll see how long your premature conclusion holds up :)

      • zlop

        By studying each individual life form in a pond,
        can one predict their interaction?

        • OWilson

          No, not even with the best, most detailed map of the pond National Geographic could create!

          The mystery of life and the universe eludes the scientific aristocracy and nobility no less than it has frustrated Kings and Popes throughout history.

          It frustrates those who feel they are called to teach and to lead, so they substitute dogma, myth and authority to maintain their power.

        • OWilson

          No, not even with the best map that National Geographic could create.

          Frustrating as it may be for those of us who feel the need the teach, and govern others, there is no Royal Road to understanding life.

          Myth, dogma and authority are all used to keep folks in line and paying their tribute, but essentially, even the lowliest among us can look at the universe, and wonder!

          • zlop

            Second Law Violation nullifies Malthusian sophistry.
            Development (not hard limitation by resources) is the limit.

        • matt

          All I’m saying is: there’s a pond with life forms in it; let’s see what they are and how they interact!

          If that’s not reductionism then so be it :)

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        The resurrection of Christ is imminent, reductionist Tommy Aquinas’ 70 books, give or take forever. Summa Theologiæ, 3500+ pages. Draw an empirical conclusion from the parts given that Baruch Spinoza killed god with two pages of Propositions (and was also wrong).

    • waltinseattle

      If a map describes by rainfall, tree coverage, and soil types etc…would you call it reductionist. How can you describe interactions between parts without naming parts. This mapping works from both ends coarse to specific singular to global. Of course if YOU want to reduce a grand project to a preference of your own….

    • zlop

      Good point — combined effect, interacting, is greater than the individuals summed. That is why the military seeks overwhelming superiority.

    • Albert Tousson

      Well said, Uncle Al. A tenet of biology is “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. In contrast to biological synergy, straight mathematics tells us, “the whole is equal to the sum of the parts.” Whether one believes in God or not, life is a miracle which defies mathematical logic.

    • Raul

      Uncle AI,
      if you check “physics of complex systems” your could change your mind.
      It explains how new behaviours emerge out of complex systems. You understand the individual parts first, then you put thousands of them together and the “magic” starts :-)

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  • http://arturotozzi.webnode.it/ Arturo Tozzi cns

    The trends is towards a novel phrenology. Every single area, and probably every single neuron and glial cell and every other brain structure, performs different activities. See, for example, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11571-015-9337-1

    • waltinseattle

      Much is not singular. That’s how steady states are maintained. Much like quarum signaling, imho.

  • LingzhongFan

    The paper by Glasser et al is really interesting study. It represents a big progress on the parcellation of the human cerebral cortex. But it is worthy to be noted that another study conducted in China by Fan et al was published on Cerebral Cortex on May 26, 2016. In that paper, the whole human brain (both cortical and subcortical regions) was parcellated with diffusion magnetic resonance imaging, a method is different from Glasser’s paper. The resulting human Brainnetome Atlas, with 210 cortical and 36 subcortical subregions, provides a fine-grained, cross-validated atlas and contains information on both anatomical and functional connections. For more information about the brain atlas, please refer at http://atlas.brainnetome.org or the following paper.
    Fan L, Li H, Zhuo J, Zhang Y, Wang J, Chen L, Yang Z, Chu C, Xie S, Laird AR, Fox PT, Eickhoff SB, Yu C, Jiang T. 2016. The Human Brainnetome Atlas: A New Brain Atlas Based on Connectional Architecture. Cerebral cortex. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhw157. PMID: 27230218

    • waltinseattle

      I’m betting th r e will be some exact overlaps and some differences cut right down the middle of the similarities of the two. I’ll predict it in switching intersects.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Thanks very much for the comment! The Brainnetome Atlas looks like a great piece of work as well. I wonder to what extent it matches up with the HCP_MMP? Has anyone checked?

      • LingzhongFan

        There are some exact overlaps and some differences of the two maps. For example, some regions of prefrontal or parietal lobes, the Brainnetome Atlas has much more fine-grained parcels. For example, the Broca’s area, the ventral and dorsal parts of area 44, and anterior and posterior parts of area 45 are identified based on the anatomical connectivity information. The other region need to pay attention is the primary cortex, such as somatosensory cortex and visual area. On one hand, the connectivity-based parcellation using dMRI can reveal the representation of distinct body parts, on the other hand, the results in the Brainnetome Atlas and other group’s observation both found that different modalities can map different organizations in the visual areas.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

          Thanks, that’s fascinating. The next step surely is to put DTI, MRI and fMRI data into one model and use that to create a pan-modal parcellation… if there is a suitable dataset that is.

    • LingzhongFan

      It is a wise strategy in this paper using multi-modal modalities and achieved a fine-grained parcellation of the human cerebral cortex, however, the parcellation number is not a problem but inconsistent criterion among different brain regions is a concern.

  • zlop

    “Brain destroying Genetically Modified six legged T4 bacteriophage”,
    can be specialized to disable certain brain functions and make people docile?

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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