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Unstrange Phenomena

17 September 2010

Mapping Our Complex Brains: Human Connectome Project

Fascinating new project mapping the complex circuitry of our brains.

Human Connectome Project

From Denny: There's circuitry and then there's our brain's circuitry. The brain is the last frontier for medical understanding about the body. Think of what it must be like to be a cartographer of the human brain: fascinating.

$30 million project

The Human Connectome Project has tasked itself with the lofty goal of achieving just that in only five years. And the consortium of 33 American researchers, at nine different institutions, have amassed a hefty $30 million to do it. This is the first of its kind effort to map the complex circuitry of the brain. They will be detailing every tiny connection that links to thousands of different brain regions.

The lead universities in this massive effort are Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the University of Minnesota's Center for Magnetic Resonance Research (CMRR). These two sites are where most of the brain scanning will take place.

What kind of brain scanners you ask?

Yes, there is another grant for that, the HCP grant of $8.5 milllion, from 16 areas of the National Institutes of Health. Massachusetts General Hospital and UCLA are on point to develop advanced, custom brain scanners. Those scanners will possess much higher spatial resolution and increased sensitivity.

Just how large is this project?

Try 90 billion neurons big. And that figure still doesn't touch the brain's large scale and complexity. The brain is estimated to possess at least 150 trillion synapses. Synapses are those connections that pass signals to and from neurons and electrical signals have to negotiate all this complexity. The neurons and the connections between them are what make up the circuitry of our brains.

"These cells and synapses form the circuits that underlie all our thinking and emotion – everything that makes each of us a unique individual," says David Van Essen, PhD, the Edison Professor and head of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at Washington University.

What technology will they use?

The hope for this project is to accurately map out in great detail this complexity, going to the next level generation of medicine. To accomplish this feat researchers are tapping into state-of-the-art brain scanning technologies like diffusion imaging, various MRI methods, and magnetoencephalography. They will also utilize new brain analysis techniques.

Scanning techniques will include:

* diffusion imaging - a new form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that produces detailed information on cell structure by tracking the random movements of water molecules

* resting state functional MRI - monitors brain activity while subjects relax, to reveal which brain regions work in sync with each other via brain networks

* task-related functional MRI - helps associate particular capabilities with specific brain regions by tracking brain activity as subjects perform visual, motor, cognitive, and other tasks

* magnetoencephalography - monitors very rapid patterns of activity involving millions of brain cells but provides less specific spatial data

What else will researchers study as they map the brain?

Researchers want to map more than just how messages move through our brains. They want to view how the brain networks as various regions work together. To amass this information they are going to need a supercomputer (at Washington University's High Performance Computing Center) to process all the data collected.

What's a voxel?

The map resolutions will be focusing upon the intensely small, called a "voxel." A voxel is a small swath of grey brain matter containing about one million neurons each. Researchers estimate this project will generate about one petabyte of data it's so mind-boggling (or 1 quadrillion - 1,000,000,000,000,000 bytes).

Which part of the brain is going to receive the most study?

Efforts will be concentrated on the the cerebral cortex. Those wrinkled sheets of gray matter on both sides of the brain are where the most complex mental functions are carried out. Just visualize a funny looking wrinkly 14-inch pizza if these areas were spread out flat.

Did you know that each person's celebral cortex is different?

A brain's wrinkles and folds, the shape and size of the brain structures, even the wiring of the circuits vary a lot from person to person. Researchers want to better understand those variabilities and also any genetic underpinnings so they have decided to recruit 1,200 twins and siblings of twins in the project.

"This lets us look at the heritability of different brain circuits by comparing identical twins to non-identical twins and siblings," he explains. "It will also let us start linking various genes to specific aspects of brain circuitry."

New understanding of the brain to help with autism and schizophrenia

The hope is this new brain mapping of the complex circuitry will help neuro-scientists when they need to test their theories, hypotheses and other study findings against this data. Medicine continues to push the window on deeper understanding of how the brain functions so they can find cures for neurological disorders.

"This effort will have a major impact on our understanding of the healthy adult human brain," says lead investigator David Van Essen, PhD, the Edison Professor and head of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at Washington University. "It will also enable future projects that probe what changes in brain circuits underlie a broad variety of disorders, such as autism and schizophrenia."

"In the last two decades, scientists have developed a fantastic number of tools for non-invasive study of the human brain," says lead investigator Kamil Ugurbil, PhD, director of the CMRR and the McKnight Presidential Chair Professor of Radiology, Neurosciences and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. "The connectome project will significantly advance these techniques, many of which are based on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and apply them to generate unprecedented insights into the connectivity and function of the brain."

"On a scale never before attempted, this highly coordinated effort will use state-of-the-art imaging instruments, analysis tools and informatics technologies – and all of the resulting data will be freely shared with the research community," said Dr. Michael Huerta of the National Institute of Mental Health, who directs the NIH Connectome initiative. "Individual variability in brain connections underlies the diversity of our thinking, perception and motor skills, so understanding these networks promises advances in brain health."

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