This post is written by Alex, a 16-year old student who spent a week on work placement with the Learning team.
The brain is one of the most complex biological organs in the world, and even today our understanding of it is very primitive, but recent advances in the field of neuroscience could help us unpick some of its mysteries…
In Who am I? there is a little mouse with a big secret: its brain glows in a rainbow of colours. The Brainbow method maps out the large labyrinth of neurons in the brain using fluorescent proteins which flag up each individual neuron with its own colour. Through genetic engineering the brain cells in this mouse glow in a spectrum of different colours when under the right light. Brainbow has significantly helped scientists in attempting to map out the very complex, microscopic neural pathways and systems in the brain, using these strikingly coloured (and quite stunning) images.
The Brainbow technique is so interesting because researchers could potentially use the neural maps of the brain that it creates, when studying mental activities and behaviours to see what circuits are implicated. Another possible use is comparing these neural maps to see differences in the cellular structure of those with neurological disorders, to those without, in order to help identify and possibly even help develop treatments..
However, one limitation is that scientists so far have only used Brainbow to explore the brains of small animals such as mice and drosophila (the fruitfly), and the human brain is vast and much more diverse in neurons in comparison to these two organisms. There is also the ethical issue of genetic modification when it comes to working on the human brain – as Brainbow does rely on brain cells expressing proteins that have been genetically preprogrammed.
Would you accept genetic engineering in humans in order to get a better understanding of the human brain?
The Brainbow genetically engineered mouse, and the beautiful image of its brain are on display in the Who am I? gallery, Wellcome Wing 1st floor.