Sunday, July 4, 2010

Brain Shape = Function

Imagine evidence from brain-imaging aiding in criminal conviction. In the film Minority Report, actor Tom Cruise plays a law enforcement officer of the “Pre-Crime” division of a privatized police force. In the story, Cruise’s character is framed for a crime he had not yet committed. The movie warns of the potential for distortion when second-guessing our free will. Perhaps this isn’t simply science fiction. Advanced imaging and methods of measuring brains shape, could lead “experts” to make predictions about someone’s individual character, and even one’s propensity to commit a crime.


Early “scientists” judged the shape of a human brain to predict brain function. However, recent breakthroughs in brain shape analysis are also discovering a link between brain shape and brain function. New models of cortex folding that combine genetics and physical principles can help integrate what is known about morphology, development and mental connectivity along with genetic processes that could control timing and development of the cortex. By creating a detailed timetable of the formation of many different connections that make up the brain’s communication system, we will be able to determine when different parts of the cortex develop in the womb. This will enable scientists to experiment by modifying the development of distinct layers or neurons.


Researchers have begun to understand that autism arises from mis-wiring of the brain. This causes communication between nearby cortical areas to increase, while communication between distant areas decreases. People with autism exhibit deviations from the normal number and positions of neurons in cortical layers compared with those of healthy subjects. Abnormal distribution of neurons in cortical layers disrupts connections and impairs the function of the nervous system in communication.


In fact “the range of neurological diseases with vastly different symptoms such as those seen in schizophrenia, autism, Williams syndrome, childhood epilepsy, and other disorders may be the result of pathology arising at different times in development and variously affecting regions, layers and sets of neurons that happen to be emerging, migrating or connecting when the process goes awry.” Claus C. Hilgetag and Helen Barbas (2010)

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