How A Brown Smear Unlocked A Hidden Part Of The Brain

It was a great scientific achievement unlocking part of the human brain that was almost missed.

Terri Furlong was looking through hundreds of printed images of the brain when she saw it: what looked like a brown smear.

"I thought it was a continuation of another known (cell) nucleus nearby so I labelled it," the neuroscientist and senior postdoctoral fellow at Neuroscience Research Australia told 10 News First.

Furlong would later find out the brown smear was in fact a new nucleus. Her team, led by world leading brain cartographer Professor George Paxinos, had just discovered a region of the brain previously unknown to science.

"George crossed it out and put a question mark," Furlong said.

"And now we have it right," she said.

Image: 10 News First

Thirty years ago, Paxinos had detected something unusual about the same area at the base of the brain.

Years later, with better staining and imaging techniques, he and his team have brought it to life in a newly constructed map of the human brain stem.

"This time, I spent some time and have determined it stands alone: it’s like an island in the middle of a river and therefore we have the right to identify it as a structure and give it a name," Paxinos told 10 News First. 

He named it 'Endorestiform Nucleus'.

"It's like how an astronomer probably feels when they identify a star."
The pathways of the brainstem traced via tractography and MRI. Image: Supplied

It's located near the point where the brain connects with the spinal cord -- in the part of the brain that handles balance and coordination of limbs and the body.

"It is recipient of information from the spinal cord and it probably relays this information to the cerebellum," Paxinos explained.

“I can only guess as to its function, but given the part of the brain where it has been found, it might be involved in fine motor control."

READ MORE: The Weird Thing Walking Does To Your Brain

What's intriguing about Paxinos' discovery is the newly-chartered region is so far not present in monkey brains that are generally similar to those of humans.

"Monkeys do not have this part of the brain. This could be unique to humans because we have really fine tools and we can do things like play instruments," said Dr Steve Kassem, a postdoc in his lab.

Professor Paxinos and his atlas. Image: Supplied

Paxinos' brain atlases have been used in neurosurgery and heralded as the most accurate for the identification of brain structures.

Now that the region has been mapped, neuroscientists can now set out to determine its function that could help to explore cures for diseases such as Parkinson's and motor neuron disease.

Lead image: Supplied

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au