Deep brain activity: Stimulating neurons to create networks. The brain controls our thinking, feelings and movements and a new exhibition in southern France aims to reveal some of its secrets.
European researchers are trying to unlock the brain's deepest mysteries - and its amazing capacities.
The exhibition is called Cervorama. Its curator Vincent Jouanneau told euronews: "Evolution led to the creation of many different brains in animals, each of them with very different capabilities. And even in human beings, we have brains that differ a lot from one individual to another. Depending on how we are going to use our brain, on our life experiences, on our accumulated knowledge, we will develop more or less cognitive functions. This plasticity is what transforms our brain into a unique organ, perfectly adapted to each individual".
"In the past, brains could only be studied in corpses, during or after autopsies. Nowadays, we are able to watch, in real-time, a live brain working thanks to medical imaging. These innovations are helping us understand much better how our brains work," Jouanneau adds. "Of course, everybody is afraid of touching this fragile human organ. Neurosurgery is not an anodyne appendicitis operation. Dealing with the brain still creates apprehension."
*Doing away with drilling*
One hospital in Lithuania is undertaking an unusual test. Patients with head trauma are provided with strange plastic glasses to measure the pressure on their brain tissues.
Until now, these measurements - key to determining if patients are at risk of further brain damage - involved literally drilling into the skull. That is a dangerous and costly procedure which each year prevents more than one million European patients from having a proper examination of their brain injures.
Vilnius University neurosurgeon Saulius Rocka believes the figure soon be a thing of the past: "This platform gives us, neurosurgeons, the possibility to understand what is happening in the brain without being invasive. Invasive measurements are nowadays standard in neurosurgery. But you can't use invasive measurements, for instance, with conscious patients. This equipment enables us to produce safer, faster and more accurate measurements of intracranial pressure."
The platform is based on ultrasound technology. Ultrasound beams are gently applied to the eye. They measure blood flow parameters in two different regions of the opthalmic artery. The ultrasound signal is processed in a fast and precise way, according to its developers.
The BrainSafe project coordinator and business developer Edvardas Satkauskas explained: "We are trying to measure the speed of blood particles and other parameters in really small vessels in the brain. The big challenge is to be accurate, so our platform must be very sensitive. That's why we had to develop innovative technologies, like digital signal processing solutions or filtering algorithms; all fit into a united electronic platform."
The brain is much more than a fragile human organ. Children visiting the exhibition learn that the brain has the amazing capacity to increase its own potential almost by itself. But brains can also lose that potential equally fast when they grow older.
"Magnetic resonances have been conducted on London taxi drivers. It has been proved that they have a more developed hippocampus than other people. Hippocampus is the region responsible for memory. Why is it more developed in London taxi drivers? Well, because they have had to learn - by heart - London's street map. And they have developed this mental capacity," explained Jouanneau.
"Brain plasticity is the result of many different things. But neurons come top of the list. They are able to organise by themselves. They create networks. The more you stimulate them (the neurons), the more these networks of neurons will be developed and reliable. On the contrary, the less you stimulate neurons, the more these networks will be forced to finally disappear," he added.
*Delving into neurodegeneration*
A group of scientists in Vienna is engaged in hands-on brain research activities to explore the deepest molecular secrets of ageing brains.
They are particularly trying to understand why some old brains stay healthy while others develop neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.
Gabor G. Kovacs is a neurologist and neuropathologist at the Medical University of Vienna. He also coordinates the Develage project.
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