Wednesday, June 19

Human Connectome Project pieces together neural data through brain scans

A collaborative project at UCLA’s Laboratory of Neuro Imaging looks at how the brain integrates neural information to help scientists better understand brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, autism and multiple sclerosis.

The Human Connectome Project, which was established in 2009, is the first of its kind in the field of connectomics, which is the study of interactions between different parts of the nervous system, said Arthur Toga, director of the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging who is one of the principal investigators.

The project is a collaboration with Massachusetts General Hospital. Massachusetts General Hospital conducts brain scans on healthy patients and sends the results to UCLA, where researchers like Jack Van Horn, a UCLA neurologist, apply complex algorithms to the raw brain scan data so they can generate the maps in a healthy patient’s brain.

“Historically, we focused on mapping brain structure, but we haven’t spent a lot of time looking at how those structures are wired together, what the connections between them are, and how they function,” Toga said.

Neural information travels from one area of the brain to another, moving through white matter. A disruption or abnormality in the white matter pathways can lead to disease. The study of white matter can therefore help researchers and neurologists understand disease, said Paul Thompson, professor of neurology at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging.

Many people with serious brain illnesses have some abnormality in the connections of the brain, Thompson said.

Until recently, researchers did not have the scanning methods to detect or map the connections in the brain, Thompson said.

Researchers from the Human Connectome Project at UCLA use data from brain scanners at Massachusetts General Hospital to map these connections.

By mapping the white matter networks in the brain for healthy patients, researchers can understand what the normal scan results look like, Van Horn said. Researchers can then compare brain scans of patients with neurodegenerative diseases with those of healthy patients to understand exactly how neurological diseases affect the brain, he added.

Some researchers have already applied data from the Human Connectome Project to learn more about mental conditions. Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who suffered a steel rod lodged through his skull in 1848, has become a notorious case in the neuroscience community for the profound change in behavior he suffered after. Having survived the incident, Gage became bitter and antagonistic, losing his ability to work with people. Scientists, including Van Horn, have used the Connectome data to justify how an incident that only affected one part of the brain could cause such a profound change in overall behavior.

The project’s research grant will expire in 2013, Thompson said. He added that the team is trying to complete the project by then, and plan to publicly release the final data so it can be used by the scientific community for further analysis.

Both Van Horn and Toga said they are hopeful that releasing the data into the public domain will encourage further research into the neurological basis of brain diseases.

This knowledge can then potentially be used to develop more effective medications for patients with mental diseases, Van Horn said.

Contributing reports by Kristen Taketa, Bruin contributor.

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