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NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC - Secrets of the Brain

Science of the Brain - FREE Feature Download

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New technologies are shedding light on biology's greatest unsolved mystery: how the brain really works.

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Van Wedeen strokes his half-gray beard and leans toward his computer screen, scrolling through a cascade of files. We’re sitting in a windowless library, surrounded by speckled boxes of old letters, curling issues of scientific journals, and an old slide projector that no one has gotten around to throwing out.

“It’ll take me a moment to locate your brain,” he says.

On a hard drive Wedeen has stored hundreds of brains—exquisitely detailed 3-D images from monkeys, rats, and humans, including me. Wedeen has offered to take me on a journey through my own head.

“We’ll hit all the tourist spots,” he promises, smiling.

This is my second trip to the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, located in a former ship-rope factory on Boston Harbor. The first time, a few weeks ago, I offered myself as a neuroscientific guinea pig to Wedeen and his colleagues. In a scanning room I lay down on a slab, the back of my head resting in an open plastic box. A radiologist lowered a white plastic helmet over my face. I looked up at him through two eyeholes as he screwed the helmet tight, so that the 96 miniature antennas it contained would be close enough to my brain to pick up the radio waves it was about to emit. As the slab glided into the cylindrical maw of the scanner, I thought of The Man in the Iron Mask.

The magnets that now surrounded me began to rumble and beep. For an hour I lay still, eyes closed, and tried to keep myself calm with my own thoughts. It wasn’t easy. To squeeze as much resolution as possible out of the scanner, Wedeen and his colleagues had designed the device with barely enough room for a person of my build to fit inside. To tamp down the panic, I breathed smoothly and transported myself to places in my memory, at one point recalling how I had once walked my nine-year-old daughter to school through piles of blizzard snow.

As I lay there, I reflected on the fact that all of these thoughts and emotions were the creation of the three-pound loaf of flesh that was under scrutiny: my fear, carried by electrical impulses converging in an almond-shaped chunk of tissue in my brain...

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Carl Zimmer wrote on bringing back extinct species in the April 2013 issue. Robert Clark’s previous story, on sugar, was in the August 2013 issue.

For more on the mind, tune in to the third season of Brain Games, premiering in January on the National Geographic Channel. Check local listings.


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