Understanding the brain through its spatial structure
Morrison, Will Z.
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The spatial location of cells in neural tissue can be easily extracted from many imaging modalities, but the information contained in spatial relationships between cells is seldom utilized. This is because of a lack of recognition of the importance of spatial relationships to some aspects of brain function, and the reflection in spatial statistics of other types of information. The mathematical tools necessary to describe spatial relationships are also unknown to many neuroscientists, and biologists in general. We analyze two cases, and show that spatial relationships can be used to understand the role of a particular type of cell, the astrocyte, in Alzheimer's disease, and that the geometry of axons in the brain's white matter sheds light on the process of establishing connectivity between areas of the brain. Astrocytes provide nutrients for neuronal metabolism, and regulate the chemical environment of the brain, activities that require manipulation of spatial distributions (of neurotransmitters, for example). We first show, through the use of a correlation function, that inter-astrocyte forces determine the size of independent regulatory domains in the cortex. By examining the spatial distribution of astrocytes in a mouse model of Alzheimer's Disease, we determine that astrocytes are not actively transported to fight the disease, as was previously thought. The paths axons take through the white matter determine which parts of the brain are connected, and how quickly signals are transmitted. The rules that determine these paths (i.e. shortest distance) are currently unknown. By measurement of axon orientation distributions using three-point correlation functions and the statistics of axon turning and branching, we reveal that axons are restricted to growth in three directions, like a taxicab traversing city blocks, albeit in three-dimensions. We show how geometric restrictions at the small scale are related to large-scale trajectories. Finally we discuss the implications of this finding for experimental and theoretical connectomics.