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Using Data to Map the Human Brain

Despite centuries of study, our understanding of the human brain is still pretty fuzzy. With nearly one hundred billion neurons intermingled with 100,000 miles of blood vessels, capillaries and other transport systems carrying 1.5 pints of blood per minute, the brain is one of the largest, busiest and most complex organs in the human body. In fact, it is so complex that its mysteries have led researchers from across the world to commit their life’s work to unraveling its many folds.

The Human Connectome Project (HCP) is one of many ways researchers are working together to discover and share knowledge about the human brain. In 2009, the National Institute of Health (NIH) awarded the HCP to prominent researchers to enable them to collect detailed imaging data to map the structural and functional connections in the human brain (twins and their non-twin siblings) along with extensive behavioral and heritability measures. Researchers from institutions across the world are using this archived freely available data to better understand how the normal human brain processes functions like reason, memory and emotion. The data has already led to novel discoveries. Like who knew that the human brain’s circuitry is just as organized as the street grid in Manhattan?

Now the NIH is expanding the scope of connectome projects to encompass brain disorders such as dementia, cortical blindness, schizophrenia and depression with a series of grant awards it calls Connectomes Related to Human Disease.

At Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, Yvette I. Sheline, MD, a professor of Psychiatry, Radiology and Neurology and director of the Center for Neuromodulation in Depression and Stress (CNDS), was awarded a new HCP Connectomes Related to Human Disease grant. Sheline's specific HCP project, "Dimensional Connectomics of Anxious Misery" aims to recruit 200 individuals with anxious misery, which represents the spectrum of traditional depressive and anxiety disorders, and 50 healthy control subjects.

Every year more than 30 percent of the world's population and 75 million adult Americans suffer from disorders that can be described by the term anxious misery. The main goal of Sheline’s project is to acquire and make public a vast database of brain imaging and behavioral data from patients with anxious misery.

Sheline recently discussed the impact of the HCP data and her project during her keynote address at the department of Radiology’s 43rd Annual Pendergrass Symposium. According to Sheline, the HCP has gathered and made public MRI scans and carefully characterized demographic and neuropsychological status data from more than 1,200 individuals. The gathering and sharing of such data has now allowed researchers to address questions about brain connectivity, its relationship to behavior and contributions of environmental and genetic factors to individual differences in brain circuitry.

“With this comprehensive normative database, scientists are now able to decipher more fully the complex relationship between brain structure and function and to understand the influence of variables such as gender, age and IQ,” Sheline said.

Sheline also described how this work will be extended in the new NIH grant which she heads at Penn.

“This new grant will use the HCP protocols and recruit participants with mood and anxiety disorders to determine the ways in which brain and behavior differ across these disorders.”

Other HCP related projects underway at Penn include a study to explore Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD), a clinical neurodegenerative condition that affects both gray matter (GM) and white matter (WM) in the brain; and a study exploring the impact of low vision, blindness, and sight restoration on quality of life.

Through collaborative research and the use of this unprecedented amount of brain data, perhaps we’ll be able to see the brain more clearly, and soon.

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