Episode SummaryIt goes without saying that the brain is difficult to understand, with the billions of neurons, fine individual synapses between each neuron, and the different regions responsible for the innumerable behaviors exhibited by human beings. A new burgeoning and promising intermediary field called Connectomics is making waves in mapping the brain and figuring out how these various connections work together to make us sentient. In this episode with Dr. Olaf Sporns, who is in part credited with coming up with the term connectomics, we explore the progress that’s been made in this field in the past decade, and take a tentative but hopeful look ahead at what the next decade might bring as the field progresses into its adolescence.

GuestDr. Olaf Sporns

Expertise:  Neuroscience and Cognitive Science

Recognition in BriefOlaf Sporns is provost professor in Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University (Bloomington), as well as the Robert H. Shaffer Chair. Dr. Sporns received his PhD from Rockefeller University. After receiving his doctorate, he moved to the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California.

His focus is in the area of computational cognitive neuroscience and is a founding and ongoing contributor to the field of Connectomics, which embodies mapping and networking models of the human brain. He has written numerous publications in the field and has authored multiple books, his latest being Discovering the Human Connectome published in 2012. Dr. Sporns was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011 in the Natural Sciences category.

Current AffiliationsIndiana University (Bloomington)

A Protostar in the Universe of Neuroscience

Connectomics is an infant in the broad field of neuroscience. At its core, the field revolves around mapping the billions of connections in the brain. To give some context to the extent of this mission, says Dr. Olaf Sporns, imagine if you were to unravel all the connections in the brain and connect them in a straight line; the total distance would reach halfway to the moon (about 117,000 miles). To look at it another way, our brain is an almost inconceivably dense ball of connections that we carry around with us, mostly unaware, as we go about our day. “Connectomics arose out of the need to understand these connections, to create a better map of the brain in more detail, to understand how it’s laid out, as well as the computational and cognitive capacities of our brain,” says Sporns.

Since it’s birth 10 years ago, there has been a lot of progress in the field, but in very small, dense areas. Mapping the brain is a daunting task and an ongoing effort in a number of labs; as detailed in this article by Greg Nichols, Carnegie Mellon University is the latest research hub to be granted government funds to hopefully speed up the process of brain mapping through reverse engineering. One area that’s seen great progress is the mapping of connections, or the pathways between specific brain regions.

Olaf states that researchers have been able to map these fairly accurately, deciphering how each region speaks with another, which is helpful in understanding why certain parts of the brain are different from others. “Connections are key, both at the level of the individual neuron and at the higher level of brain regions, in understanding how the brain operates computationally and cognitively,” says Sporns.

Another way to think about the connectome is in networks. We’re all familiar with the term, especially when it comes to social networks, both physical and digital. Humans seem to have an intuitive understanding for the importance of connectedness, which is often how we define ourselves. As in all networks, social and others, some elements are more important than others when it comes to function, says Olaf. “Think of the life of the party, the person who is highly connected to members of the social group and who becomes sort of like a social map. It turns out in the brain, we have similar patterns,” he says.

Not all parts of the brain are connected to each other in equal ways; some are more highly connected to the central brain, which is helping scientists to better understand communication patterns, computations, and types of information processed for the first time. “Connectomics has given us sort of a window on what these brain regions are, where they are, how they’re laid out in our brain, how they differ across individuals, how they differ across people in different conditions in health or mental disorders, there have been an enormous number of studies now on these highly connected network hubs,” states Sporns.

Building Optimal Brains

Of course, the ever important question is, how might Connectomics provide us with insight that would help us improve the human experience?

In just the last few years and months, says Olaf, researchers have been creating more tools for mapping the brain, discerning how parts of the brain function differently in individuals, and how these connections feed into mental disorders and other conditions. This is exactly the information needed to create chemical anecdotes and other strategies to help alleviate such afflictions, and solutions are already being worked out in the clinical field.

In the not too distant future, says Sporns, we can really begin to start answering questions about the potential application of this knowledge and more theoretical questions. For example, what is optimal about our brain? Is the brain optimal in terms of computation and cognition, or is it possible that we have not yet maxed out in terms of how we process information? Can we make a better brain, either by building technological models at scale, or by enhancing our brain as it is now to a “higher functioning” state? Olaf ponders these questions on a routine basis, motivated by the evolution of an optimizing process, which he says scientists are investigating now with new theoretical tools.

How do these new tools and models look in practice? One example, explains Sporns, is attempting to rewire a model of the human brain, something that may be impossible in the real world but can be done relatively easily on a computer. “Once we rearrange wires, we can ask questions to the network, and measure how well it performs; it can be our cross function, we can drive the brain in a direction by rewiring and it will continue to improve its processes by rewiring,” he explains.

This is one way to try and optimize the brain in a certain direction. Scientists can then observe the end result and try and answer the question of whether these new brain models resemble anything that we find in nature or render something unlike any biological organism we’ve seen, shedding light on the boundaries of our biological Connectome architectures.

A Pocket for Your Thoughts?

“I’m old enough to remember the early days of the genomics project, people thought it couldn’t be done, and if it could it wouldn’t contribute much to biology…it now has completely transformed our understanding of biology,” says Olaf, who thinks Connectomics will do the same for the brain. He believes scientists will eventually map and understand most if not all of the brain’s connections, knowledge that will become indispensable for how we view brain function. Harvard’s Jeff Lichtman, another neuroscientist working on mapping the brain, seems to agree.

While surprises are guaranteed and impossible to predict, Sporns does have one guess for where Connectomics will take us in the next decade. Just as you can get your own genome today for the “smallish” sum of about $1,000, a feat that was once unthinkable, Olaf predicts that in 10 years we’ll be able to get our own personal connectome for a small investment, something akin to a “personal subway map of our brains,” he says.

It seems far out, but it may be possible that within our lifetimes, we’ll pull our wallets out of our pockets and have access to both our personal genome and connectome, an instant that will have taken us millions of years to figure out.

Image credit: Indiana University (Bloomington)