Thirty years ago, George Paxinos noticed an unusual assortment of cells lurking near the brain stem -- but he didn't think much of it.
Going over the region in 2018, he was once again struck by it. Now Paxinos' new research suggests that cluster of cells is definitely important. In fact, it appears to be a completely unknown region of the human brain. The early suggestion is that this bundle of neurons may be responsible for fine motor control, dictating our ability to strum the guitar, write and play sports.
Professor Paxinos is one of the world's most respected "brain cartographers". He creates atlases of human and animal brains that allow neuroscientists, brain surgeons and clinicians to get a better grasp of just what makes up the thinking boxes in our skull.
Coming back to the region that he was originally interested in before publishing his first atlas 28 years ago led to the discovery of the tiny grouping of brain cells. He's crowned the new region "the Endorestiform nucleus" because of its location at the base of the brain in the restiform body.
"One intriguing thing about this endorestiform nucleus is that it seems to be present only in the human, we have not been able to detect it in the rhesus monkey or the marmoset that we have studied," he explained.
It's location, between the brain stem and the spinal cord, is the only inkling we currently have about the brain cells function. As Paxinos has been unable to locate the same region in other apes, he guesses that it must be useful in the fine motor control that humans are so uniquely good at.
You can hear professor Paxinos discuss the finding in the video below.
However, while the structure does appear to be important, further work will be required to understand how its function relates to its form. Paxinos only journeys into the brain to craft a map so it will be up to other intrepid brain explorers to journey back to the centre of the neural bundle and learn more.
The oft-repeated line about our brains containing as many neurons as there are stars in the galaxy doesn't quite ring true -- but with some 86 billion neurons pulsing away upstairs, improving our understanding of the brain is still a mammoth task. Discoveries like this allow scientists and researchers to understand normal brain physiology, providing great insight on how or why things go wrong in pathologies such as Alzheimer's or motor neuron disease.
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