New online atlas provides collective maps of human brain folds

Sept. 21, 2005 -- Neuroscientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have assembled a first-of-its kind atlas of the folds of the cerebral cortex, the wrinkled surface layer of the brain credited with many of the higher cognitive functions that make us human. The atlas, known as the Population-Average, Landmark and Surface-based (PALS) Atlas, links brain functions to the various peaks and valleys of the cortex.

PALS is the first brain atlas that accurately portrays the complex folds of the cerebral cortex not just from a single individual but from a group of individuals. It is available online (http://sumsdb.wustl.edu:8081/sums/) both to provide a resource for neuroscientists seeking to determine the functions of an interesting brain area and as a repository for adding new data that expand and fine-tune the atlas' maps.

The creators hope it will be useful in a wide variety of research projects. Among other studies, PALS is already helping scientists understand how an inherited disorder changes the brain and how brain function adjusts in response to blindness.

A paper on the creation of PALS appears online this week in the journal Neuroimage.

Senior investigator David Van Essen, Ph.D., the Edison Professor of Neurobiology and head of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, has been compiling cortical cartography for two decades. He compares scientists' current knowledge of the details of human brain structure to 17th-century mapmakers' grasp of the surface of the Earth.

"We know a lot, and we're learning much more all the time, but some features that we would like to be able to definitively pinpoint are actually rife with uncertainty," he says. "And large fractions of the cortex have areas of controversy or outright error."

In all fairness to cortical cartographers, Van Essen notes, mapmakers charting the Earth never had to deal with the tr

Contact: Michael C. Purdy
Washington University School of Medicine

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