By Tara Roberts
With 26 letters, the English alphabet can build tens of thousands of words. With 10,000 kinds of cells, the human brain can build a number of connections so vast it’s hard to grasp.
Like letters arranged into words, these connections must be “spelled” right as the brain develops.
“Because the nervous system is wired specifically, most of us make more or less the same words,” explains Peter Fuerst, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Idaho.
Incorrect connections in the brain are like nonsense words – they don’t work with the whole, potentially leading to developmental disorders, autism or sensory deprivation. Other times, neurons that make inappropriate connections function like a repeated word or exclamation mark, exaggerating normal behavior in conditions such as epilepsy or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
But before scientists can develop treatments that target diseases’ neural roots, they must first understand the basic workings of the 100 billion neurons and their quadrillion connections that make up the book of the brain.
Fuerst has been studying neural connections for 10 years. With support from the National Eye Institute, WWAMI Medical Education Program and UI’s Institute for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies (IBEST), he and his research team are contributing to the international effort to better understand the brain.