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Hyderabad: In the coming years, there is every possibility that neurosurgeons will have access to technology that will enable them to prepare personalised comprehensive map of neural connections of patient’s brain. Something like a wiring diagram or a neural network map of the brain’s pathways that will explain the reasons behind various kinds of brain disorders like autism, Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.

Neurophysicians will also have access to hundreds of brain mapping data, known as connectomes, which are comprehensive structural and functional map of neural connections of the brain, and brain map atlas, enabling them to better understand the human brain and help cure or prevent brain disorders among patients.

The idea of having a complete picture of neural connections of the brain and ability to understand the reasons behind complex brain disorders may sound like science-fiction. However, believe it not, this is the direction in which the future of cutting-edge research in the field of neuroscience is headed.

A comprehensive start to understand the inner workings of the brain was made in 2010 when National Institutes of Health in the United States launched the ambitious Human Connectomes Project, which basically was aimed at constructing a map of the complete structural and functional neural connections of the brain in individuals with the help of latest MRI scans.

The Connectomes project with a funding of nearly 30 million has already generated thousands of high-quality imaging data of the brains of individuals and has made them available to researchers interested in understanding the inner workings of the brain.

Apart from Connectomes project, multiple research initiatives to understand brain are underway. In 2016, the International Brain Initiative (IBI) was launched by multiple countries including Japan, Korea, Europe, US and Australia to speed-up the progress on, as IBI itself put it ‘cracking the brain’s code’.

Another notable initiative in US is Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN), which ‘aspires to map the function of hundreds of thousands of neurons simultaneously, as they function at the speed of a fleeting thought”.

What is Human Connectomes Project?

There are nearly 90 billion neurons in the human brain that are connected to each other through electrical impulses known as synapses. It is believed that there are trillions of synapses that direct the neurons in the brain and indirectly the human behaviour.

Dr. David Van Essen, who has served as a Principal Investigator for the Human Connectomes Project (HCP), in a paper titled ‘The Human Connectome Project: Progress and Prospects’ in Cerebrum journal said “Connectomes is to map the hundreds of functionally distinct areas, or ‘parcels’ of the human brain and to understand how these areas are connected and how each contributes to our behaviour.

Additionally, we want to understand how the brain’s complex functional systems go awry in neurological and psychiatric diseases. Successfully addressing these challenging questions require acquiring and analysing MRI data of the highest quality in normal young adults, individuals, and aging individuals”.

Allen Brain Map:

Another project aimed at mapping the brain is Allen Brain Map initiative funded by co-founder of Microsoft Paul Allen. Essentially, the Allen Brain Map is aimed at developing a brain atlas with emphasis on identifying the genes that would enable scientists understand various brain disorders like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, mental disorders and even Autism. The Allen Institute has already produced numerous datasets to map the location and intensity of gene expression across the normal and diseased central nervous system, throughout development, and in multiple species.

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Author: Howard Caldwell