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60-Second Science

Connectomics: Mapping the Nervous System

In an effort that in some ways makes the human genome project look simple, scientists are attempting to map the trillions of connections among neurons in any person. Cynthia Graber reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

It took 13 years and countless hours of research to unravel the human genome. Now neuroscientists want to do their field’s version. A small group of researchers is advancing the emerging field of what they call “connectomics.” As genomics moved from individual genes to the entire genome, so connectomics wants to take us from individual neurons in our brain to the connections and wiring in the entire nervous system network. That involves nerve cells, the axons that stretch out like wires, the synapses that transmit information.

It’s a daunting task—you have about a hundred billion neurons in your brain. Connectomics wouldn’t be possible without computer processing and imaging. This allows researchers to look at a maze of axons in a sample and determine just which axon is connected to which neuron. It’s as complicated as it sounds. Jeff Lichtman is a Harvard scientist whose lab is at the forefront of this effort. He says detailing the connections in a single human brain would require data storage equivalent to Google’s entire collection. But the effort’s underway. Lichtman says Connectomics could teach us how the brain processes information, and how we develop and learn. Which, he says, is what makes us human.

—Cynthia Graber

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