By Farah Bader
As a child, my favorite television show was The Magic School Bus, a popular animated series devoted to getting children excited about science. I absolutely adored Ms. Frizzle, the zany science teacher who would take her flying school bus for wild, yet educational field trips inside the human body, back in time, and into space, giving her pupils an up-close and personal glimpse into important scientific concepts in a fun, engaging way.
Now, as an adult with a distinct love for the neurosciences, I have often wondered what would have happened had the Magic School bus ridden into the vast, uncharted regions of folded neuronal tissues inside our skulls. Like me, would Mrs. Frizzle’s students have marveled at the dizzying mass of tract fibers and speculated at the origin and destination of each connection? Would they have stared in utter amazement as electric signals jumped at lightning speed from node to node?
This keen interest in that three pound enigma inside our heads is not confined to only childlike curiosity. If carried into adulthood, the awe we experience in learning about the brain can continue to intrigue us. Born out this historical desire to intricately map out the brain and unearth its highly complex circuitry, the Human Connectome Initiative was designed to amass both the structural and functional neuronal connections data from 1,200 normal adult subjects from 300 families. Twin pairs and their siblings were the main study subjects (http://www.nih.gov/news/health/sep2010/nimh-15.htm).Funded by NIH, two research consortia are spearheading this grand effort. One consortia includes Washington University, St. Louis, and the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and has ten partners. The second consortia involves Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH)/Harvard University, Boston and the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA)
The brain’s structural and anatomical circuits were imaged through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners that have powerful ultra-high magnetic fields, shorter scan times than traditional MRIs, and enhanced spatial and temporal resolution. A variety of high-quality MRI instruments were used, ranging from resting state MRI to capture the activity when the brain is quiet (at rest) and functional MRI to provide a picture of neuronal activation when the brain is working away at a task. Diffusion MRI took advantage of the motion of water to create tracts of the brain’s fibrous connections and pinpoint the direction and orientation of each fiber at specified locations. The MRI imaging data has been overlaid with electrical recordings from EEGs, genetics, and behavioral data, gifting us with rich data set that may be shared amongst many hopeful researchers with creative, innovative ideas (http://www.nih.gov/news/health/sep2010/nimh-15.htm).
In March 2014, this project reached a key milestone when both raw and processed data obtained by recording the magnetic fields produced by the natural electric current in the brain were made publicly available. The data release includes ten datasets from 14 patients for a resting state along with the motor, sensory, cognitive test conditions http://humanconnectome.org/about/pressroom/project-news/hcp-releases-initial-meg-dataset/
As more datasets of this kind are analyzed and released, the potential to unlock the mysteries of human behavior, cognition, emotion, motor control, sensation, and consciousness will greatly increase. Learning the ‘normal’ circuitry will provide us with insight on what may go awry when an individual is afflicted with depression, anxiety, or a neurodegenerative disorder or disease or even stroke. With this knowledge, we can devise appropriate interventions to improve the quality of life for people suffering from these diseases and disorders.
Indeed, it is an exciting and mutually beneficial time for both those interested in the brain and the people who have a condition that adversely impacts it. With such unprecedented interest in anything neuro-related, the possibilities for exploration are endless and entirely worthy of a second trip by the Magic School bus riders through an organ of which we now have a fuller understanding!
Farah Bader, M.P.H., is an analyst at the Fogarty International Center at the National Institute of Health and is responsible for providing technical, analytic, programmatic, and grants-management support for global health research and research training program grants. She holds a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins University with a concentration in Humanitarian Emergencies and Health and Human Rights along with a Bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology from Emory. Previously, she worked in neurophysiology and neuro-pharmacology research labs on animal models of Parkinson’s disease and nerve agent exposure, respectively. She has also worked as a consultant for a federal advisory committee that provides policy advice on military health. While at Hopkins, Farah was a part of a team of students that helped design and implement a survey to examine the health status of Iraqi refugees displaced in Jordan. This experience spurred her interest in mental health, specifically the psychological health of vulnerable children affected by crisis situations and other humanitarian emergencies. These collective experiences have helped sustain her persistent fascination with the cultural variation of emotion and behavior in non-Western contexts and cross-cultural psychiatry, which she hopes to understand better by volunteering with CHAI. Farah will be contributing a multi-part brain mapping series to the CHAI blog. The views and opinions expressed in Farah’s blogs are her own and not representative of NIH.