Unlocking the ‘deepest secrets of our brains as we grow and age’

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A slice of a young mouse’s brain, with limited synapse diversity. Credit: Zhen Qui/Seth Grant/University of Edinburgh

Just as our human relationships and connections can nudge, push, or dramatically shift societal values and consequences, the connections between neurons form intricate networks that dictate the outcome of your mind. Your thoughts, memories, behaviors; your values, world view, mental health—everything that makes you you is calculated and stored in these connections, called synapses, that dot our brains like billions of stars in the night sky.

 

[A] European team from the United Kingdom, France, and Sweden, led by Dr. Seth G.N. Grant at the University of Edinburgh, redefined impossibility with a paper in Science. Peering into the brains of mice at different ages—one day, one week, and all the way up to an elderly 18 months—the team constructed maps of roughly 5 billion synapses, outlining a timeline of their diversity and numbers in over 100 different brain regions with age.

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If previous brain maps were paper maps or Google Maps where you could zoom in at a single moment in time, this team’s synaptic map is a documentary (or a Doctor Strange’s time stone) that allows you to scroll through and examine synapses across time.

Stunning images aside, the work is meant to unveil some of the deepest secrets of our brains as we grow and age. Why, for example, do people generally develop autism in childhood, but schizophrenia in young adulthood? Why do our memories and cognitive abilities fail gradually with age? These answers may lie in how our synapses—and thus, our brains’ computations— change as we age.

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