What are thoughts made of?
Secret brain Does the super brain scanner track our thoughts?
"Connectom" is the name of this high-performance brain scanner. It looks like a normal magnetic resonance tomograph in a hospital - an MRI machine. But it achieves ten times what scientists have been able to work with so far: it makes tiny structures of up to 0.6 millimeters visible on the living human brain.
This opens up completely new possibilities for brain researchers. For them, looking into our mysterious brain has so far been like trying to light up a crooked cellar with a candle. For Prof. Nikolaus Weiskopf, Director of the Department of Neurophysics at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, there are now new opportunities:
The candles with which we shine into the cellar have become significantly larger and brighter with the use of the scanner.Prof. Nikolaus Weiskopf
There are only three of these devices worldwide - in Boston, in Cardiff and now in Leipzig. The name Connectom is derived from the English word "CONNECT", which means something like "CONNECT". It makes it clear what you want to find out with the device:
We want to know what the connections in the human brain look like, we want to show exactly which brain region is linked to which.Prof. Nikolaus Weiskopf
Scientists around the world are currently working on a map, a kind of atlas, of how the data connections work in the brain. The people of Leipzig are particularly interested in the cerebral cortex, because this is where many thought processes take place.
The nerve pathways are not so easily found in the brain. Prof. Weiskopf and his colleagues use the exceptionally powerful magnetic resonance tomograph to measure the flow of fluids in the brain on a microscopic level. They can then also see the nerve tracts, because they bundle water in one direction.
Where are the information superhighways in the brain? And where are the bike paths?
With their Connectom, the people of Leipzig not only want to know how the brain is linked, but also how the nerve tracts differ from one another. Where are the information highways, where are the country roads and where are the bike paths? The Connectom offers the possibility of recognizing the fat layer, the insulation around the nerve tract, much more precisely than before. The better a nerve pathway is isolated, the better and faster it can transmit information:
This can explain, for example, why we might behave differently or think differently in certain areas.Prof. Nikolaus Weiskopf
Early detection of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis is conceivable
With this better view into the brain - with this lighter candle to stay in the picture - Nikolaus Weiskopf also hopes to gain knowledge for a better understanding of diseases such as multiple sclerosis - in which the insulating layer of the nerve tracts is destroyed - or for diagnostics of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Because so far we have noticed these diseases far too late.
We hope that the Connectom system will enable us to spot these small, subtle microstructural changes early on.Prof. Nikolaus Weiskopf
In the USA there are also projects that use these new possibilities to answer questions that are at home in the border area between biology, medicine and philosophy. On the basis of the course of nerve tracts and the crucial switching points and junctions that suddenly become visible, one hopes to find out where the soul, the consciousness of the person could be located. Prof. Weiskopf is rather skeptical about this. But what he believes is that Connectom can help us understand how our brains make decisions.
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