Yesterday, scientists at the Human Connectome Project debuted new work that featured 97 new regions of the brain, including what they believe those regions are responsible for in humans. It’s incredible stuff, but it can also be confusing if you’re not a neuroscientist. What’s a connectome, and how are we still finding new parts in the human mind?
What’s A Connectome?
If we think of our brains as computers, a connectome is more or less its wiring diagram. Connectomes map neural connections in the brain, from a tiny section of the mind to a full-on map of every possible connection.
Contrary to popular belief, the brain is in many ways an unexplored frontier in medicine, including the fact that we don’t seem to need one in the first place, in some circumstances. We simply don’t know that much about the brain, how it works, or why it’s wired the way it is. What we do know is that the structure of our brains and how they function are inextricably linked, and that connectomes show us that structure. Connectomes won’t answer every question about the mind, but they will offer insight into which pieces are connected to what and possibly how activity in one region of the brain might affect activity in another.
How’d They Find New Parts Of The Brain?
As you might guess, the brain is fairly complicated stuff, and as we’ve been studying its wiring, we’ve been uncovering all sorts of fascinating bits. Probably the most important piece of the puzzle, though, is that our brains are far more complicated than we realized. As connectomes have improved, they’ve been finding, at the microscopic scale, connections that have forced neuroscientists to question some of their more basic assertions.
Hence, the Human Connectome Project claims with confidence that it’s found 97 new areas in the cerebral cortex, basically the “top layer” of the brain. If you look at a brain in a jar, you’re looking at the cerebral cortex. It’s also some ridiculously complicated stuff, even before we found a bunch of new parts to it. It has six layers and it’s responsible for language, consciousness, memory, attention, perception, awareness, and thought. It’s so complex that if you read the study, the research team is pretty sure there are even more regions in the cerebral cortex, but our current tools aren’t quite granular enough to find them. To give you an idea of how small we’re talking here, this study was done with two kinds of MRIs and used an algorithm developed by British researchers to precisely align each brain.
So, yeah, this is more or less the most advanced look at our brains that we’ve ever seen, and the researchers behind it are talking about how much better they’ll do when they have more precise tools. That’s the best illustration of how far we have to go understanding the brain.
Why Is This Important?
In the short term, a better understanding of the cerebral cortex will offer doctors a better grasp of brain injury and how it affects our behavior. Even just knowing what the injured part of the brain was responsible for will be a huge step forward. In the long term, it means a better grasp of the functioning of our brains and opens the door to more, better tools for tracing how we think and the nuts and bolts of our minds, not to mention pushing cutting edge learning tools further. The main thing to remember is that even though we use it every day, our knowledge of the brain inside our heads has much, much further to go.