Scientists have created the first map of the ways that the white matter in our brains connects with itself, and with our grey matter. The takeaway? It works like a scaffold, researchers say — and some connections are much more important than others.
Top image: 3-D models of connections between white matter in the brain / USC
The paper, entitled "Systematic network lesioning reveals the core white matter scaffold of the human brain", was published today in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience and is the work of Andrei Irimia and John D. Van Horn, of the University of Southern California's Neurology Department.
To get their results, they took 110 MRIs for different subjects, then simulated the effects of a brain injury that would damage an individual white matter pathway and looked at the results in brain function. Some pathways, they found were extremely significant to brain function, while others had much less of an effect.
Van Horn explained in a statement:
"Sometimes people experience a head injury which seems severe but from which they are able to recover. On the other hand, some people have a seemingly small injury which has very serious clinical effects. This research helps us to better address clinical challenges such as traumatic brain injury and to determine what makes certain white matter pathways particularly vulnerable and important."
Researchers made this map to show the different connections that were made across the brain, along with a chart showing how connectivity works between different areas of the brain:
Image A: 3-D models of how the white matter in the brain connects, paired with a "connectogram" visualizing linkages between different areas of the brain / USC
Especially interesting in the study, though, is that, because the study involved looking at what happened when micro-traumas disrupted small areas of the brain, researchers say that the work also helps them identify what specific areas of the brain could be the most potentially vulnerable, and perhaps even predict how injuries will disrupt brain function.
"The response of various brain regions to injury as quantified from the standpoint of network integration/segregation may be predictable based on their function," researchers note in the study.
Image: Correlation between brain area injured and disruption of connections occurring in the brain. / USC
The study could eventually lead to a better understanding of how brain injuries work, say researchers, or even help medical experts to better understand how neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's disease harm the brain. You can read the whole study over at Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.