Scientists claim to have developed a new technique which provides rapid access to brain landmarks formerly only available at autopsy.
A team at Washington University says getting through the intricacies of the human brain will give a better insight into how the mind works and aide in future diagnosis and treatment of brain disorders, the 'Journal of Neuroscience' reported.
The technique will also make it possible for researchers to map myelination, or the degree to which branches of brain cells are covered by a white sheath known as myelin in order to speed up long-distance signalling.
"The brain is among the most complex structures known, with approximately 90 billion neurons transmitting information across 150 trillion connections," said team leader David Van Essen of Washington University.
He added: "New perspectives are very helpful for understanding this complexity, and myelin maps will give us important insights into where certain parts of the brain end and others begin."
Easy access to detailed maps of myelination in humans and animals also will aid efforts to understand how the brain evolved and how it works, according to Van Essen.
Neuroscientists have known for more than a century that myelination levels differ throughout the cerebral cortex, the gray outer layer of the brain where most higher mental functions take place. Until now, though, the only way they could map these differences in detail was to remove the brain after death, slice it and stain it for myelin.
The new technique combines data from two types of magnetic resonance imaging scans.
"These are standard ways of imaging brain anatomy that scientists and clinicians have used for a long time. After developing the new technique, we applied it in a detailed analysis of archived brain scans from healthy adults," the scientists said.
The findings show highest myelination levels in areas involved with early processing of information from the eyes and other sensory organs and control of movement. Many brain cells are packed into these regions, but the connections among the cells are less complex.
"It's been widely hypothesised that each chunk of the cerebral cortex is made up of very uniform information-processing machinery. But we're now adding to a picture of striking regional differences that are important for understanding how the brain works," Van Essen said.