An unprecedented five-year,$30 million effort to generate a first-of-its-kind map of all the major circuits in the human brain is being led by the School of Medicine and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Magnetic Resonance Research (CMRR).
Thirty-three researchers at nine institutions will contribute to the Human Connectome Project. Using powerful, custom-built brain scanners, a super-computer, new brain analysis techniques and other state-of-the-art resources, they will trace the anatomical “wires” that interconnect thousands of regions of the human brain’s gray matter.
“This effort will have a major impact on our understanding of the healthy adult human brain,” says lead investigator David C. 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.”
Brain scans of volunteer subjects for the project will be carried out at Washington University, the University of Minnesota and Saint Louis University. Scientists will use instrumentation and methods developed at the CMRR with the participation of researchers at Advanced MRI Technologies. Powerful new methods for analyzing these extremely complex datasets will be developed by investigators from Oxford University; Indiana University; University of California, Berkeley; Warwick University; University d’Annunzio; and the Ernst Strungmann Institute.
Much of the project will focus on the cerebral cortex, where complex mental functions are carried out. The wrinkles and folds of the cortex, the shape and size of other brain structures, and the wiring of individual brain circuits vary significantly from person to person.
The information gathered via scanning will allow scientists to map the brain’s connections, track how the connections transmit information, and identify how brain regions work together in dozens of networks and sub-networks.
Van Essen, who estimates the project will produce about 1 petabyte (1 quadrillionbytes) of data, says rapid and open data sharing will be a hallmark of the federally funded project. As the researchers gather and analyze results, the team will quickly make the data available to other neuro-scientists for use in their own research.
As information about how brain circuits are normally connected reaches a critical mass, scientists can begin to use the data to study how those differences contribute to differences in human behavior.