Tools of the Brain Trade

Over at Cocktail Party Physics, Jennifer Ouellette on some of the tools of mapping brains.

Last week was the start of a new program on the anatomy, development and evolution of the brain, which means the halls of KITP [Kavil Institute for Theoretical Physics] are now filled not just with particle physicists and cosmologists, but also scientists engaged in various aspects of neuroscience research. Ergo, I call them Brainiacs. That’s one of the great things about the KITP: it’s so very interdisciplinary in its scope, one never knows what sort of scientist one is likely to encounter on any given day, or what topics will be featured in the various scheduled talks. Today, for example, I can learn about gene networks in animal development, or mass determinations in decay chains with missing energy — or both, if I’m feeling especially curious. Good times!

Neuroscience isn’t a subject I cover much, beyond the occasional physics-based imaging technique (functional magnetic resonance imaging, anyone?). So why not have an unofficial “Brainiac Week” here at the cocktail party? We’ll start with a post about the foundations of modern neuroscience. Last week I heard a talk by Winfried Denk of the Max-Planck Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, which was technically about brain circuit reconstruction using sectioning electron microscopy. My magpie mind (ooh! shiny!) got sidetracked early on, however, by the fact that most of major breakthroughs in early neuroscience came about because of the development of two critical technologies: histological staining techniques, and photomicroscopy.