The Brain in Detail

brainResearchers at Washington University are working on the first interactive wiring diagram of the human brain.[1] Deanna Barch and her colleagues have been doing brain scans and cognitive, psychological, physical, and genetic assessments of 1,200 volunteers.1 At this point in time, they are one-third of the way through, and when finished, they will process the data and incorporate it into a three-dimensional, interactive map of the healthy human brain—one with detail to one-and-a-half cubic millimeters.1

Each of the 1,200 volunteers will spend 10 hours over a period of two days being scanned and completing other tests.1 Then, the researchers will spend another 10 hours analyzing and storing each volunteer’s data.1 They are building something that neuroscience does not yet have: a baseline database for structure and activity in a healthy brain, one that can be cross-referenced with personality traits, cognitive skills, and genetics.1 When finished, it will be online, available to all.1

This three-dimensional, interactive map are part of the Human Connectome Project, a $40 million, five-year effort that is supported by the National Institutes of Health.1 Barch is a psychologist, who has concentrated on neuroscience due to her desire to understand severe mental illness.1 She has been putting together the pile of cognitive and psychological tests that accompany the scans, overseeing their administration.1 This information is what gives depth and significance to the images.1

According to Barch, the main question the data will help to answer is “How do differences between you and me, and how our brains are wired up, relate to differences in our behaviors, our thoughts, our emotions, our feelings, our experiences?”1

This project has two consortiums.1 The first is a collaboration between Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, and U.C.L.A. to improve MRI technology, and the second is the project that Barch is part of, which involves Washington University, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Oxford.1 This project is only one of a growing number of collaborative information-gathering efforts.1 In Europe, $1 billion has been promised to the Human Brain Project for a computer modeling of the human brain.1 The United States’ Grand Challenge has been promised $100 million of financing for the first year to help develop new technologies for brain research.1 Also, the National Institutes of Health spends $5.5 billion a year on neuroscience research, much of it for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.1 There are many others, as well.1

David Van Essen, in charge of the Connectome effort at Washington University, commented on the improvement in brain maps.1 “A century ago, brain maps were like 16th-century maps of the Earth’s surface,” Van Essen said. “Now our characterizations are more like an 18th-century map.”1

According to Van Essen, the map is becoming more clearly defined, stepping towards the goal of reaching something more like today’s Google Maps—interactive with multiple layers.1 Eventually, they will look to see how information routes through the brain, as well, adding that to the map to understand differences in behavior, intelligence, emotion, and genetics.1

There is perhaps no chance of ever completely solving the brain’s mysteries, but coming extremely close one day is the hope of neuroscience.1

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