Public Release: 

New horizons in cortical cartography

Washington University in St. Louis

Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have developed computerized atlases and associated tools for visualizing and analyzing two major components of the brain, the cerebral cortex and the cerebellar cortex.

"It is vital to have improved methods for analyzing and visualizing the torrent of information that is becoming available from neurobiologists so that we can better understand the brain in health and disease," says David C. Van Essen, Ph.D., Edison Professor of neurobiology and head of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology. The cerebral cortex and the cerebellar cortex form the convoluted surfaces of the brain. The cerebral cortex is the seat of thought, learning, emotion, perception, sensation and movement. The cerebellar cortex also is important for movement and in coordinating the flow of information related to many functions, including cognitive processes as well as movement.

Both areas are highly folded and compact sheet-like structures. Van Essen has taken advantage of their sheet-like nature to produce computerized maps of the cortical surfaces that are analogous to maps of the earth's surface.

"Just as maps of the Earth locate continents, mountain ranges and nations, our cortical maps will show the locations of the brain's structures and functional subdivisions," says Van Essen. "Our atlases represent the most accurate and comprehensive maps of cerebral and cerebellar cortex available for humans, macaque monkeys and mice." Macaque monkeys are the most intensively studied nonhuman primate, and mice are the most intensively studied rodent.

Detailed maps of the brain, says Van Essen, will help physicians better understand the implications of brain damage due to stroke, epilepsy, trauma and other causes, and will help guide neurosurgeons in the operating room.

Van Essen presented his work at the 40th annual New Horizons in Science Briefing, sponsored by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, held Oct. 27-30 at Washington University in St. Louis.

The maps are repositories for information generated by neuroscientists around the world. Such maps are essential, Van Essen says, because a growing number of technical advances have greatly accelerated the pace at which neuroscientists acquire experimental data about cerebral and cerebellar cortex.

Nonetheless, science still has a long way to go. "Our present level of understanding of cortical organization and function remains fragmentary," he says. "It's similar to the rudimentary understanding held by 17th-century cartographers of the earth's geographic and political subdivisions."

The cortical maps being assembled by Van Essen and his colleagues will be freely available and electronically accessible to the scientific and educational community. Just as in the past decade databases for genomics and proteomics have become essential tools in molecular and cellular biology, he believes that in the coming decade, web-based sources of neuroanatomical, neurophysiological, and neuroimaging data will become powerful and pervasive tools for basic and clinical neuroscience.



Contact: Darrell E. Ward, assc. director for research communications, Washington University School of Medicine, (314) 286-0122;

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