Holy Crap! There's a Giant Neuron That Wraps Around the Entire Brain!

 Giant neurons branching across the hemispheres of a mouse brain. Image Credit: Allen Institute for Brain Science

Giant neurons branching across the hemispheres of a mouse brain. Image Credit: Allen Institute for Brain Science

Last week I caught wind of a new discovery, made by Dr. Christof Koch of the Allen Brain Institute for Brain Science. For those not in the know, Koch has worked extensively on a neurobiological basis for consciousness. 

Together with the late Dr. Francis Crick of the DNA double helix fame, the dynamic duo zeroed in on a thin sheet of tissue nestled under the outer layer of the brain, called the claustrum. The brain region is colorfully described as "a grand central station", because it connects to an enormous amount of brain regions for its size. 

As it turns out, the claustrum might be even more connected than previously thought.

At the BRAIN Initiative progress meeting last week, Koch announced that his team had discovered three giant neurons stemming from the claustrum, the largest of which has its projections wrapped around the entire mouse brain. They used a super cool automated microscope technique that allowed them to reconstruct neurons at the micrometer level - something that's super hard to do, since neuronal projections are extremely thin.

Koch firmly believes that connectivity is a crucial requirement for the emergence of consciousness, so - of course - he's very pleased to find these giant neurons, in the brain area that he believes is associated with consciousness.

Of course, this is unpublished data in the mouse brain, so whether similar neurons occur in humans is totally up in the air. The team is currently preparing the manuscript, which will be vetted by their peers and the scientific community. 

Regardless of the functional significance of the giant neurons, the new microscope technique will help others in the field do their own reconstructions. The end goal, as Koch mentioned, is to piece the entire brain together, bit by bit.

There's a lot more to this story, so if you'd like to get the details, head over to Singularity Hub and check it out.