NIH Awards $40 Million to Map the Human Brain

Megan Brooks

October 04, 2010

October 4, 2010 — The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has earmarked $40 million over 5 years to create a high-resolution map of the major structural and functional connections in the human brain. It's called the Human Connectome Project (www.humanconnectome.org).

Spearheading the project are 2 collaborating research consortia. The first will be co-led by David Van Essen, PhD, chief of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, Washington University, St Louis, Missouri, and Kamil Ugurbil, PhD, director of the Center for Magnetic Resonance Imaging Research (CMRR), University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

The other consortia will be led by investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard University, Boston, and the University of California, Los Angeles.

Dr. David Van Essen

The Human Connectome Project "seems, at times, daunting, overwhelming," Dr. Van Essen told Medscape Medical News. The Washington University/Minnesota team will map the connectomes in each of 1200 healthy adults, including twin pairs and their siblings from 300 families, thereby providing information about the heritability of brain circuitry.

Studying healthy adults will provide a "critical baseline for understanding not only what typical brain connectivity is but what the nature of the variability in brain circuits are and how that relates to normal differences in behavior,"Dr. Van Essen said.

"This will also open the way to explorations of the diverse and complex abnormalities that we already have hints of, but no clear delineation of, in autism, schizophrenia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and countless other disorders that afflict humankind," he added.

The technology required to map the human brain has advanced remarkably quickly in the past few years, making it now possible to attempt this task, Dr. Van Essen said. "Certainly a couple of years ago, I would have said it was distinctly premature but with recent advances in technology, the time is right, and NIH was notably bold in pushing the envelope expeditiously instead of waiting some years down the line."

"Dream Team"

Thirty-three researchers at 9 research institutions will ultimately contribute to the project, including Oxford University, United Kingdom; Indiana University, Bloomington; University of California, Berkeley; Warwick University, United Kingdom; University d'Annunzio, Italy; and the Ernst Strungmann Institute, Germany.

Dr. Kamil Ugurbil

"I frankly like to think of it as a kind of dream team, who collectively provide the expertise across the many different domains that are critical to the success of this project," Dr. Van Essen said.

Washington University and University of Minnesota are strongly complementary on critical aspects of the technology, he added. "Wash U is a leader in the neuroscience and neuroinformatics, while the Minnesota team is a leader in developing cutting edge [magnetic resonance] hardware and the development of full sequence and analysis methods that are crucial for the front-end data acquisition, Dr. Van Essen explained.

Speaking with Medscape Medical News, Dr. Ugurbil noted that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain has really "exploded over the last decade. We are at the point where some of these MRI technologies can be used for asking the kind of questions that are being asked in this project." The project will take advantage of several scanning techniques, including diffusion imaging MRI, resting state functional MRI, task-related MRI, magnetoencephalography.

In addition to serving as director of the CMRR, Dr. Ugurbil is professor in the departments of radiology, neurosciences, and medicine and holds the McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair of Radiology at the University of Minnesota. He received degrees in physics and chemical physics from Columbia University, New York. In 1982, he moved to the University of Minnesota, where he started the in vivo MRI and spectroscopy research effort and the CMRR was born.

1 Quadrillion Bytes of Data

Each human brain contains roughly 90 billion neurons, which transmit information across roughly 150 trillion synapses. Much of the project will focus on the cerebral cortex, responsible for the most complex cognitive functions.

The Washington University/Minnesota team will map the connectomes in each of 1200 healthy adults, including twin pairs and their siblings from 300 families, thereby providing information about the heritability of brain circuitry.

It is estimated that the project will generate about 1 petabyte or 1 quadrillion bytes of data, which will be accomplished using a newly acquired supercomputer at Washington University's High Performance Computing Center, according to a university-issued statement.

Rapid and open data sharing will be a hallmark of the federally funded project. "We're already working to create a well-organized data platform and tools that will allow scientists to drill down into the massive amounts of data the connectome project will produce and to efficiently extract the information they need to make exciting discoveries," Dr. Van Essen said.

Asked how he landed the job of mapping the human brain, Dr. Van Essen said, "I certainly never counted on this as a career objective, but on a personal level, it has been an amazing set of serendipitous occurrences over particularly the last several years that brought me into a position to help lead this endeavor. It builds on my background as a neuroanatomist.

"I've also been intensely interested in brain connections," he noted, "but didn't have this as a particular agenda item until the funding opportunity opened up and the evolution of my own research focus brought me into the orbit where we were able to move very quickly together to do this."

Dr. Van Essen and Dr. Ugurbil have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

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