Significant investments have been made to unlock the mysteries of human genetics, behavior, and various disease states. To date, however, research into the neural pathways that comprise the brain and their connectivity had not yet reached that same level of depth.
Now the world’s first grand-scale effort to catalog connections in the brain is moving into the trial stage. The Human Connectome Project “represents the first large-scale attempt to collect and share data of a scope and detail sufficient to begin the process of addressing deeply fundamental questions about human connectional anatomy and variation,” says the study website.
Principal investigator Arthur W. Toga, Ph.D., who directs the Neuro Imaging lab at the David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA, discussed the bonanza of applications the project findings could yield.
“Having the opportunity to work in this field is the very essence of who we are,” Toga said. “The data’s immediately available to be utilized for scientific discovery and utility,” he said. “There’s no embargo on using the machines.”
In addition to being an academic tenet Toga values highly, open access to data from the connectome research is also a stipulation of the NIH funding that established the project as an offshoot of its now-defunct Human Brain Project. That study drove the evolution of new tractography techniques, computational strategies, and the development of increasingly sensitive instrumentation.
The wealth of information generated from investigations like these “has a way of propelling science,” he said.
“This is a project to collect a large database of information which is immediately given away,” Toga said. “Those are projects that have an immediate influence on how science progresses.”
“The wow factor of the degree of detail that will be observed” will help encourage developments in everything from tractogaphy to next-generation diffusion imaging techniques to tractography, Toga said.
The project is scanning people of varying ages, backgrounds, and health states, Toga said, collecting, grouping, and mining information about human variability in normal and disease states.
“Part of this project is to collect a whole bunch of people, study them, and then generate a database that anyone can study, access, and mine for years to come better understanding the type of maps that can be created,” Toga said, “and all of those things in combination just sort of energize a large range of applications.
“The goal really is to have as comprehensive a map of the brain’s wiring as we can achieve across a population of individuals,” he said. “There hasn’t been a concentrated effort in brain mapping related to connectivity.”
Observing neurofibers relative to other information about the brain—such as cortex thickness, cell packing density—provides a wealth of information
“Right now we only typically look at coarse fibers of passage, but the finer fibers that go from one region to another of cortex are enormously important for information that a person uses in assessing context of what they’re thinking about,” Toga said.
“That’s going to be enormously useful information.”