The Brainy Age of Discovery

I was definitely excited when I clicked one of the links in my google alerts this morning. The National Institutes of Health stepped in to fund mapping brain connections three years ago, and because of that funding, researchers have created highly technical brain scanners teaching us more than we can ever comprehend about our brains.

The Human Genome Project

The first genetic mapper, Alfred Sturtevant, identified the chromosomal make-up of a fruit fly in 1913. Approximately eighty years later, the National Institutes of Health funded the ambitious task of mapping the approximately 23,000 genes of the human body. One of the goals of the Human Genome Project was to identify genetic instruction. In 2004, scientists completed the mapping and explained they had a virtual blueprint of the human being. This blueprint, according to former National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) director, Francis Collins, is a "transformative textbook of medicine, with insights that will give health care providers immense new powers to treat, prevent and cure disease". Furthermore, the NHGRI believes, "scientists around the world have access to a database that greatly facilitates and accelerates the pace of biomedical research".

The Human Connectome Project

And now, it's neuroscience's turn. In 2009, the National Institutes of Health awarded $40 million to map the 100 billion neurons of the human brain, investigating neuronal connectivity and function. How ambitious is this project, called the "Human Connectome Project"? The most similar task to this study has been the mapping of C. elegans, a 1mm worm that had 300 neurons. The worm's neuron mapping began in the 1970s and took ten years to complete. In contrast, MIT Neuroscientist, Sebastian Seung, explains, "The complete neural connectome of a human has a billion times more connections than a genome has letters."

Progress of the Human Connectome Project gained tremendous momentum in September 2011 with the invention of German corporation, Siemens', diffusion-imaging scanner. In layman's terms, it's a highly specialized MRI that creates images 10 times clearer than an MRI can. The scanner follows water traveling through nerve fibers within the white matter of our brains.
Using both the diffusion-imaging scanner and a resting state functional MRI, researchers will begin to trace both the structure and the functions of the brain's neuronal networks.

Personal Interest

The human connectome will certainly lead researchers to learn more about neurological disorders, but what excites me is learning more about the brain's specific functions: reasoning, speech, language, and reading; and how the structure of the brain contributes to those functions. The research thus far has produced incredible images, and I look forward to following the research through its completion.

The article I read and the research I explored to further my understanding of the human connectome project only intensifies my desire to learn about brain imaging, and I will continue pursuing such continuing education so that I can be the talented research psychologist able to explain learning from a neurologist's perspective and able to generate research studies worthy of a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
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