In a study reported recently in the journal Nature, an NIH-funded team of researchers has begun to bring this map of the human brain into much sharper focus. By combining multiple types of cutting-edge brain imaging data from more than 200 healthy young men and women, the researchers were able to subdivide the cerebral cortex, the brain’s outer layer, into 180 specific areas in each hemisphere. Remarkably, almost 100 of those areas had never before been described. This new high-resolution brain map will advance fundamental understanding of the human brain and will help to bring greater precision to the diagnosis and treatment of many brain disorders.

To put this new map to good use in research and ultimately in the clinic, it’s important to confirm that these 180 areas can be found in any person. To develop a tool with this goal in mind, the researchers used a machine learning approach in which a computer was “trained” to recognize each of the brain areas. They then applied their tool to the brain scans of another 210 participants that were not included in the original mapping effort. The team found it could reliably detect nearly all (96.6 percent!) of the 180 areas.

Interestingly, particular areas of the cerebral cortex appear to switch places with one another in some people. The researchers found that even in those atypical brains, they could still correctly identify nearly all of the mapped areas. As the science progresses, it will be fascinating to learn how those fundamental differences in the brain arise and what it might mean for brain function.