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Brain mapping just made a huge leap forward. A group of researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and from six other research centers have more than doubled the known number of distinct areas on the outer layer of the human brain, also known as the cortex or outer mantle.

The work was funded by the National Institutes of Health Human Connectome Project, a joint effort “to map the neural pathways that underlie human brain function.” The team lead by Washington University compared their work to advances from early to modern astronomy. “The situation is analogous to astronomy where ground-based telescopes produced relatively blurry images of the sky before the advent of adaptive optics and space telescopes,” said Matthew Glasser, Ph.D., lead author of the study.

The study used two groups of 210 subjects each. All were healthy and all were scanned by multiple magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques to measure cortical architecture, activity, connectivity, and topography. While they found some anomalies with a “small minority” of subjects, algorithms employed by the researchers produced maps of 180 distinct areas in the cortex per hemisphere. Previously 83 areas were known — but the study identified 97 more for a total of 180 — on each side of the brain.

“These new insights and tools should help to explain how our cortex evolved and the roles of its specialized areas in health and disease, and could eventually hold promise for unprecedented precision in brain surgery and clinical work-ups,” said Bruce Cuthbert, Ph.D., acting director of NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).