Discover Magazine reports that a group of scientists are working on a brand new form of brain mapping. The $30 million Human Connectome Project will provide a model showing the main neural pathways that link the 500 major areas of the brain in an attempt to show how our biological hardwiring controls our mental activity.
The following statement from the Human Connectome Project website might titillate your inner scientist: "Navigate the brain in a way that was never before possible; fly through major brain pathways, compare essential circuits, zoom into a region to explore the cells that comprise it, and the functions that depend on it."
MRI scans of 1,200 people, including 300 pairs of twins, will be compiled to develop a blueprint of neural pathways. This model will show how brain connectivity differs from person to person.
These scans will achieve a rough resolution of about one millimeter (0.04 inch), comparable to mapping the world's highways while omitting local streets. However, if the project is successful it will provide the first type of global brain mapping available to scientists, and would be a major breakthrough in understanding how the physical makeup of the brain relates to consciousness.
"Until now we've had only a fragmentary understanding of who is talking to whom in the brain," says David Van Essen of Washington University St. Louis, one of the project's principal investigators. "It was a lot of noisy information."
The total amount of data that the project will generate is estimated to be one million gigabytes, comprised of imaging scans, genetic analysis, and behavioral tests. This data will demonstrate the effect that a person's brain connectivity has on his or her mental abilities, including memory, self-control, and decision making.
Van Essen believes that individual connectome mapping could assist the treatment of mental disorders. Instead of generating a blanket diagnosis of autism or schizophrenia, a neurologist could observe abnormal brain circuitry to provide a specialized regimen of therapy or medication.
The scans featured on the gallery section of the Human Connectome Project website could be considered an art form, similar to the multi-layered representations of human anatomy painted by visionary artist Alex Grey. Those who appreciate this type of visionary art may find value in looking at these stunning images.
This modern form of brain mapping could prove to be an important step in our effort to learn more about consciousness – where it is located, what it does, and how it behaves. The Human Connectome Project will undoubtedly become an important part of the human experience.
Image by sebilden, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.