Opinion

Latimer: Human Connectome Project works to map human brain

Many of you may be aware of the Human Genome Project, the ambitious goal of an international group of genetic scientists to map the roughly 25,000 genes of the human genome.

Publishing as it progressed, this group successfully completed its task in 2003—an incredible accomplishment.

A new project is now underway with a similar naming convention—the Human Connectome Project.

With the help of funding from the National Institutes of Health, researchers at several centres in the U.S. are working to map the many connections in the human brain.

This five-year, $40-million project is using high resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan more than 1,200 brains and develop a working map of the entire human neural wiring system. Once a scan is taken, specialized software creates 3-D images with colour coding to show the direction of axons creating a stunning view of the major connections in the brain.

Not only is the result quite visually beautiful, but the hope is that by creating this map of brain wiring, we can learn more about how connections in the brain work to make us who we are.

We do not currently have a way of imaging the brain to get a really detailed idea of what is happening in mental illness.

With a better understanding, we could potentially use imaging as a diagnostic as well as preventive tool in illnesses affecting the brain—just as already happens with other major organs.

Just as each person is unique, every brain will present differences in its wiring.

Researchers believe this project will show how the connections in the brain change after experiences.

The first batch of images gathered in the Human Connectome Project have already been posted on their website and they are well worth a look. Check them out at www.humanconnectomeproject.org.

Although not part of the Connectome Project, there are several Canadian centres also working on similar projects and the knowledge in this field is quickly advancing.

It is exciting to watch our understanding of the human brain expand and I look forward to seeing progress as it is made. It will undoubtedly bring improvements and added dimensions to our ability to help people experiencing mental illness.

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