The Human Connectome Project continues to pique the interest of researchers and neuroscience journalists around the world. Here is a sampling of prominent news items.
Dr. Kaku’s Universe (via Big Think): Mapping the Brain (The Human Connectome)
Dr. Michio Kaku explores many types of emerging sciences, and makes them accessible to a broad audience, which makes this article an interesting read, and one that has already been retweeted dozens of times.
We have long wanted to create a neuron-by-neuron map of the brain’s circuitry to give us a 3-D glimpse into its connections are, how they work and how the different parts of the brain talk to one another. This is called “reverse engineering the brain” and is one of the Holy Grails of artificial intelligence and brain research. Unfortunately, we are many decades from being able to understand the entire brain at the neural level. With all our medical advances, it is proving difficult to understand all the neural hook-ups of a fruit fly brain, let alone a human brain. But recently, a new promising step is being taken, compliments of MRI research.
St Louis Post-Dispatch: Brain Mapping Study Centered in St. Louis
Georgina Gustin writes a very thoughtful and thorough overview of the WU-Minn project. (Alternate link at the Washington Post). She touches on the highest-level goals, as well as the local impact for Saint Louis, then goes deeper to describe some key milestones along the way. For example, Ms. Gustin speaks with Andrew Heath and Deanna Barch on an essential but seldom discussed part of the project: recruiting volunteers.
The second phase will consist of recruiting and scanning volunteers. Researchers will look for 1,200 volunteers consisting of twins and two non-twin siblings, so they can compare the brain structures of people who share the same heredity….
Volunteers will be screened on the phone, then asked to submit to a battery of behavioral tests. The idea, Barch explained, is to get a diverse group of healthy brains in the mix. “We want variability,” she said. “We want to collect the data that puts us in a good position to understand what’s normal.”
That will give researchers a baseline for understanding how brain circuits differ in people with mental illnesses, she said.
An in-depth interview with Richard Bucholz at SLU sheds light on another key component of the WU-Minn HCP: the use of magnetic encephalogram (MEG) scans.
“Now that we have imaging equipment that offers virtually no risk to healthy individuals, the ability to analyze huge amounts of data with super computers, and a map the human genome, we can start to understand the brain, the most complex structure we have in the universe,” said Bucholz.
Used clinically in only a handful of facilities around the country, the MEG, housed at Saint Louis University Hospital, is a key part of the Human Connectome project, offering data about brain function, rather than structure.
Housed in a chamber that keeps out external magnetic waves, the MEG environment is opposite to the MRI’s. Instead of using magnetic force, the MEG is a magnetically neutral space. Free of outside forces, the MEG picks up the brain’s own magnetic wave activity. When patients are shown sensory images, like a picture, researchers observe which parts of the brain become active and identify the sequence of responses, essentially logging which parts of the brain sequentially react after seeing the image. Researchers distinguish working areas of the brain from low-functioning and abnormal regions. In this way, the MEG measures both brain function and abnormality.
New Scientist: 50 Ideas to Change Science [Neuroscience]
Stepping away from micro-level examination of the project, HCP Investigator Tim Behrens, of Oxford, contributes a macro-level view on why this research will be a paradigm-changing force for scientific progress.
Understanding the routes by which populations of brain cells share information would be a major step towards understanding how our brains function. But although we can infer individual connections, we have no basic wiring diagram of the human brain.
Drawing a basic map of the brain would help us to understand how its regions interact to make behaviour.