We all know about the brain. What about the connectome?
You have a blueprint in your head. A blueprint that explains why you hate eating pickles. A blueprint that explains why you feel sad listening to “Marvin’s Room” by Drake. A blueprint that explains why you have an affinity for STEM and not history, or English. Can you take a guess as to what that blueprint is called? You probably thought that it was your brain. That’s close, but you have to look deeper than that. It’s your connectome.
I’ll admit, I thought it was the brain too. I mean what else is inside your head that isn’t the brain. So what exactly is the connectome?
The human connectome is the complete set of all the connections in the brain between neurons, synapses, and wires. The brain consists of millions of connections, and they all connect with one another to form the basis of the human brain. There are two major ways to look at the human connectome and how it works: anatomical and functional. The anatomical connectome is basically the human connectome looked at through its anatomy, focusing only on its structures and the actual wiring. Essentially, the connections in the human connectome are what make up the anatomical connectome. On the other hand, the functional connectome looks into the different functions that exist and its physiological characteristics. On top of that, the connectome is flexible. As opposed to the genome, the entire composition of the genetic material in an organism, which is fixed and will never change on its own, the connectome can change. It’s all a matter of nature and nurture.
In the book, “Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are,” author Sebastian Seung explains how the human brain is influenced by genes and experiences. As a result, the connectome of an individual is more likely to change during their early years into adolescence since the brain is more malleable at that time. That explains why children are able to learn other languages more easily than adults. Likewise, researchers are now trying to look for the possibility of rewiring the adult human brain, as it could have a multitude of benefits, from enabling people to have improved quality of life, better motor coordination, and improved creativity. Through interactive games and new activities, the brain will rewire in a way to account for those new activities and help them be more adept and skilled in those areas.
So if the human connectome is the blueprint for the brain, what possibilities exist to make it even better?
That’s a question that Victor Ekuta, a Neuroscience and Connectomics Instructor for the MIT Office of Engineering Outreach Programs (MIT OEOP), can answer. Ekuta uses an analogy to highlight the importance of knowing about the connectome and what it is. According to Ekuta, the connectome can be looked at like circuitry for a light. Certain wires are connected to one another which allow the light to function. When one wire is broken, the light will not function. To fix it, one would have to look for the wire that’s damaged to get the light to work once again. The same can be said about the human connectome. He explains that when understanding the connectome, it’s important to “know what is going on in the brain when it’s not working, and when certain connections are broken,” since then we’ll know where to fix it.
The benefits of mapping the human connectome are limitless — they can prove to be a boon to the world of science and medicine.
By knowing what connections have been disrupted, scientists and researchers are able to pinpoint exactly where a neurological/neurodevelopmental disease is and then treat it before it causes further damage. This helps develop remedies, such as new nanotechnology for surgeries and imaging softwares, for these kinds of diseases that exist all over the world and could help with treating neurological disorders as well as mental disorders. “There’s a theory,” Ekuta points out, “that Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and [other] brain diseases are all the same, and if you learn how to treat one, you can treat them all in a good way and in a more impactful way.” Further, the Human Connectome Project explains how mapping the human connectome will enable one “to understand the complete details of neural connectivity.” Research from the National Institute of Health’s Blueprint for Neuroscience underscores the fact that the mapping of the connectome has the potential “to advance the capabilities for imaging and analyzing brain connections;” consequently, this will cause for “improved sensitivity, resolution, and utility in the images produced, which could allow for progress in human connectomics to accelerate.” With increased technology and newfound knowledge in neuroscience, scientists and physicians alike can utilize these tools and allow for a more in-depth study of how the different parts of the brain function and how the connections within those regions influence them. Ekuta highlights how mapping the human connectome can “optimize brain functions from memory to attention,” which could particularly help people who suffer from neurological deficits.
Overall, the human connectome is the base for your brain. It is what allows it to do what it does — the blueprint of who you are and how your actions influence your habits and behavior. Knowing this now, you have the power to change some of the things in the blueprint. Learning how to play a new instrument or a new language can allow one to have increased focus and concentration, while improving their memory and ability to understand new information. “The connectome is a single snapshot in time,” Ekuta says, “from one second to the next the brain is changing.” The connectome is in your control. Now you’ll be able to understand why you hate pickles so much.