Monday, January 3, 2011

Mapping the Brain

Scientists at Harvard and other research universities have received a $40 million dollar grant to map brain connections -- a field that neuroscientists are calling 'connectomics.' As discussed in an article in the New York Times Science Times, the hope is to eventually reveal the connections in the complex wiring of the human brain. At this point, efforts are concentrated on mapping a mouse brain, which has only a small fraction of the neurons present in the human brain. Any work on human brains is a long time off.

The process of mapping involves using newly created machines which slice sections of the mouse brain less than 30 nanometers thin (a nanometer is 1 one-billionth of a meter) and scan them for study under an electron microscope.

What impact might this literally 'cutting edge' science have on regular folks in the future? Nothing in the short term, since even the mouse studies are proving challenging and human studies are not on the immediate horizon. But in the long term, scientists hope to enable surgeons to operate more precisely on individuals with brain disorders like epilepsy, and to begin to understand the organic basis for certain mental illnesses. Just as information from currently available technology, such as functional MRIs, has enabled neuroscientists to better understand certain learning difficulties as dyslexia, and to track the remediation of this reading disorder, there is hope that a detailed understanding of the connections in the brain will lead to better understand of how individuals think, remember, and learn.

If this all sounds a bit disconcerting, you are not alone in your discomfort. Just as the mapping of the human genome raised a number of ethical and moral questions -- like the desirability of knowing that you are likely to get a particular disease -- there are numerous concerns that could arise from the mapping of the human brain. Can there be one single "map" for all brains? How do we distinguish between the brain connections we are born with and those that are created by our life experiences and what we have been calling neuroplasticity?  As one scientist involved in the mouse studies notes, this "...will either be a great success story or a massive cautionary tale." Still, whether we are ready or not, science is moving ahead and we can expect to hear more about this subject in years to come.

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