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Reading Brainbow

Scientists are story tellers. Biographers of the universe’s constituent components. All of our hypotheses // experiments // theories are aimed at painting a cohesive picture of some phenomenon. At going back and further complicating this picture, seeking to reveal all of its inherent nuances and caveats.

[As their name implies] neuroscientists are constantly pursuing the story of the nervous system, seeking to tell the nerve cell’s tale. our body communicates with itself // with others // with the environment around us via an interconnected and [overwhelmingly] complex network of neurons. All the information transfer required for sentient life occurs along these neuronal tracks.

Tamily Weissman

In an effort to understand how our neurons are connected to one another—to map the informational highways that run through our bodies—Harvard’s Dr. Jeff Lichtman and Dr. Joshua Sanes developed The Brainbow. Believe it or not, the vividly colored image above is no Jackson Pollock! Instead, it is actually a photograph of a mouse’s hippocampus—the part of the brain responsible for spatial navigation and memory—generated by the brainbow technique. What’s more, if we were to take a snapshot of our own human brains using this same method, it would turn out to look very much like the mouse’s above.

the dentate gyrus - the memory making part of our brains. lichtman + sanes 2007.

the dentate gyrus – the memory making part of our brains. lichtman + sanes 2007.

Just as a monitor uses red // green // blue to produce the myriad of colors we see flashing across our television screens, Dr. Lichtman + Dr. Sanes’s brainbow use orange // green // red // cyan *fluorescent proteins* to produce brilliantly colored images of the brain’s many connections. Its connectome. Each fluorescent protein is coded for by a different gene, with different combinations of these genes expressed in a particular neuron to label the neuronal cell any one of roughly one hundred [!] different colors.

These distinct hues can be detected and traced by a computer so that we may follow a given neuron down its individual color-paved path. By chasing the brainbow, we have the potential to follow this cell as it develops over time. We can track what other cells this neuron talks to. we can observe how different stimuli modulate this cell’s behavior. We can better understand how this cell passes along or receives a given biological message.

As we zoom out, we can begin to trace the neural circuitry of the brain as a whole. with brainbow technology, neuroscientists are now working to construct three-dimensional models [shown in video below] of all the connections in the brain by stacking together fluorescent images of thin sections of the brain. Compiling these glowing neural snapshots have begun to untangle and illuminate the mysteries behind how we are wired.