Since funding of Human Connectome Project commenced (in September, 2010), investigators on the WU-Minn HCP consortium have been working intensively to improve many aspects of data acquisition and analysis. This will insure that the highest quality data are made available to the neuroscience community once the scanning of 1,200 healthy adults begins in the summer of 2012. Two articles published recently in the St Louis Beacon, both written by Jo Seltzer, do an excellent job of explaining the emerging science and methodologies of the Connectome to a lay audience, and elucidating the progress made to date.
All the raw data and analysis from this NIH funded project will be made available to the entire scientific community. Marcus, who is in charge of the informatics, is working with partners at the eight other institutions of the consortium to develop analysis and imaging methods.
The van Essen lab is developing a downloadable desktop application for visualizing the data and navigating through it, called the Connectome Workbench. Marcus’ lab is developing the database that will feed into the Workbench.
Marcus compares the computational side to Google Earth. They are building an atlas of connections in the human brain that people will be able to explore visually. A scientist can go into the human brain atlas, click on a point and see what is connected to both functionally and physically. The click will bring them into the database on the supercomputer at Washington University for answers.
At Washington University, “regular” MRI scans will create a 3-D image of each subject’s basic brain. The same scanner set differently will make 3-D maps of the bundles of nerve axons (white matter) that connect the gray matter areas of the brain. This method, called DTI, generates images like the one in the photo as it follows the movement of water molecules moving down the length of those long axon processes.
DTI is a relatively new technique, and radiologist Josh Shimony points out that the technology is advancing so quickly that data from even five years ago is out of date.
With still different settings the same MRI scanner will create images of functional brain connections.
Both reads are highly recommended.