June 23, 2024

Neuroscientists at a Florida University has pioneered a technologically advanced method of brain mapping that it believes could help demystify Alzheimer’s disease, autism and related disorders, and offer hope for more effective treatments for traumatic brain injuries.

A team at the University of South Florida (USF) auditory development and connectomics laboratory used virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence to create a high-definition visual timeline of the journey of billions of neurons in the developing brain of newborn mice.

Complex imaging technology offers complicated 3D renderings of the chronology of the brain’s early formation, which are run through existing large language AI models and analyzed for changes. The rodents have similar neuron types and connections to humans.

The science is focused on the chalice of Hero, the largest nerve terminal in the brain of all mammals, which processes sound. Auditory dysfunction has been widely recognized as the source of symptoms of disorders including autism that typically lead to social and cognitive impairment.

“The information can help us understand serious developmental disorders that happen when the brain doesn’t develop properly early on,” said Dr. George Spirou, professor of medical engineering at USF, who likened the imagery to a road map.

A 3D map of the calyx nerve terminus of a mouse brain. Photo: University of South Florida

“It’s like you have a route from, say, New York to Chicago, and someone turns around in Cleveland. You can figure out why there was some exit that shouldn’t have been there, and go back and fix it.

“Maybe we will find the keys to some developmental disorders. And in the situation of traumatic physical injury or neural degeneration, is there a way that we can sort of recapitulate development?

“If we can trick a part of the brain into thinking it’s developing and needs to grow more synapses, that could be a therapeutic agent. Without completely succeeding in that area, it’s a guess, but it certainly seems reasonable.”

VR software created by Spirou, who has more than four decades of experience in brain research, is used to examine the neurons captured in the images, and analyze the synapses where they connect and communicate. The development of neural systems in mammals is the subject of widespread study, but never at this combined level of temporal and spatial resolution, he said.

“Between the fourth and fifth gestational months, the number of neurons in the nervous system explodes almost exponentially and synapses form at a rate of about a million per second, an incredible number when you consider that there are almost 100 tons of synapses in ‘ a mature human brain is,” he said.

“The VR platform ingests large amounts of data and is able to look at it and understand it in 3D. There’s just no way to do that on a 2D screen.”

Spirou said that in addition to structural similarities to the human brain, newborn mice are used for the research because they provide a kind of microcosm of human pregnancy.

“At two days old the nerve terminal starts to grow, at four days it’s growing and at six days old it’s mostly grown,” he said.

“What the brain does is like a game of musical chairs. Neurons over-innervate and then pruning occurs, like taking away a chair and someone is out of the game. By the age of six days, most of that trimming takes place, and by nine days of age, everything is set as it will be in an adult.

“Mice are born very immature, so the first week or so in a mouse is equivalent to time in utero in a human.”

The USF project, conducted in collaboration with scientists at the University of California at San Diego, Oregon Health & Science University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was funded in part by a $3.3m grant from the National Institutes of Health of Health (NIH) ).

In 2013, then-President Barack Obama announced an ambitious human brain mapping effort called the Brain Initiative (brain research through the advancement of innovative neurotechnologies), which promises an initial $100 million in federal funds to be distributed through the NIH and National Science Foundation.

Over a decade of progress followed in neurological research, which was reflected outside the de facto federal umbrella. Privately-funded experimentation has gained prominence in recent years and months, such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink, in which a paralyzed patient could control a computer through a chip implanted in his brain. before setbacks occurred.

“Other companies are doing the same thing, and even better, studying the human brain tissue taken from neurosurgical procedures, this is a new generation [of research]but on adults,” Spirou said.

“The time frame we’re looking at, which would really be four-fifths, maybe in the six gestational months, we’re not there yet. This presents a whole series of problems and you wouldn’t want to take a healthy situation and run an experiment that could change the development trajectory.

“So what we do with these mouse models is going to be the best approach for some time. What happens in science is it becomes more and more clear what you don’t know, and it’s such a growing field.”

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