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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 6th May 2016 > THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON GPS


Mapping the wiring of the human brain to understand what happens when things go wrong and to fix them

“CAN THE HUMAN BRAIN understand the human brain?” asks David Van Essen. “Perhaps never.”

Despite those doubts, Van Essen is co- principal investigator of the Human Connectome Project (HCP), an international effort to map out the “wiring” of the human brain. Among the goals is to reveal what, exactly, all the different parts of the brain do.

Van Essen calls himself a “brain cartographer” and compares the brain to the Earth: The planet’s surface, with its many geographic rumples and folds (known to us as valleys and mountains), is analogous to the wrinkles of the brain. While these geographical features are significant, the need-to-know information “is the political subdivisions and social organization—what we think of as states and countries—that are created by the organization and communications amongst the billions of people on the planet,” he says. Similarly, when it comes to understanding how the human mind works, what matters more than the location of the almost 100 billion neurons in the brain is how they are wired and communicate. The connectome Van Essen seeks is essentially a wiring diagram of the brain.

He and the more than 100 scientists in the HCP consortium—led by Washington University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Oxford—are peering into human skulls and gathering information for this mapping using the most sophisticated technologies available. For example, the scientists rely on diffusion magnetic resonance imaging to track the various neural communication pathways through the white matter of the brain, which, says Van Essen, contains only axons, the long, branchlike nerve fibers that carry information away from the cell body “pretty much like wires in a computer or another electronic circuit.” DMRI is used primarily to study and treat neurological disorders—but it can also give researchers a view into the abnormalities in the brain’s white matter.

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