Connecting the Dots
Mapping our brains reveals wild futures!
One of the greatest mysteries on Earth sits inside our heads. The human brain is "so complex," says Dr. Michael Fox, the director of the Center for Brain Circuit Therapeutics at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, that "it hits the wall of our understanding."
The human brain is a tangled, complex, and fascinating web of connections. Made up of more than 80 billion neurons, each connecting to potentially tens of thousands of other cells, the human brain moves vast amounts of information from one place to another in ways that we are only beginning to understand. The impact it might have on our future is profound.
In its theme Our Brains, Our Futures, Century of Science explores how our evolving understanding of the brain is opening portals to futures that were once reserved for science fiction. What would it be like to have miniature robots skittering around in your brain, rewiring neurons to overcome debilitating depression? What if you could connect your brain to another’s? With connected brains, where do you stop and the other person begins?
In the early days of neurobiology, understanding the brain relied on natural accidents. A stroke in one part of the brain diminished speech. A traumatic brain injury in another part paralyzed an arm. This led early neuroscientists to believe that the brain compartmentalized its tasks, like dots on a map. It was only with leaps in technology that scientists now understand that the brain's enigmatic power comes from the web of connections among the dots (i.e. brain cells), known as the "connectome."
Using advanced technology, scientists are beginning to trace the connectome's superhighways. Understanding how everything connects, can tell us how it works. These "wiring diagrams" have already helped doctors alleviate symptoms of Parkinson's disease and depression - though these treatments are still in very early days. In knowing the wiring, doctors and researchers can identify where things are misfiring and can rewire the circuit.
Every individual's connectome is different. This is because our brain networks are malleable. The fact that they can be rewired is also the reason why the connectome looks different from person to person. At MSI, we explore how everyone is different within YOU! The Experience.
Within the exhibit, you get to explore all the things that make you, you! You are not static. Rather, you are constantly evolving, with the you of today made up of all the experiences you’ve had, and the you of the future adapting to all the things you might experience. As we evolve, so do our connectomes!
While researchers are still many years away from mapping the entire human connectome, they are honing their skills in one of science's workhorse organisms: the fruit fly. Gaining a deep understanding of the fly's brain "also gives us insights that are very relevant to the understanding of mammalian, and even human, brains and behavior," said Dr. David Von Essen, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis.
In October of 2021, research scientists released a connectome for a region of the fruit fly brain called the "central complex," which controls the fly's navigation. Stunning in detail and covering over 25,000 neurons and over 20 million connections from the poppy seed-sized fly brain, the map was the first to show that how this part of the brain works could be figured out from just the superhighways.
"This is a tremendous step toward working out the connectivity of the brain," said Cori Bargmann, a neuroscientist at the Rockefeller University in New York.
In the future, as researchers' tools for mapping become nimbler and exact, full connectomes of human brains will come online. And with those maps, will come the potential to link minds together. In fact, we already have the technology to connect human brains together! What will our future hold if multiple minds connect together? What will make you, you?