Brain Awareness Week

Brain Awareness Week: Networking and Making Connections

It’s Day Two of Brain Awareness Week, the Dana Foundation’s global campaign to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research.  Yesterday, we looked at the unlikely intersection of Zen and the brain. Today, we’re tackling brain connectivity.

Connectome. At first glance, it looks like a typo. It should probably be “connect to me”, and sounds like a phrase that would be spoken in a couple’s therapy session. Or maybe it’s supposed to be an inspirational hashtag: #connectome. Though both of these thought processes are perfectly rational, neither one is correct. Connectome is a word describing the relationship between neurons and the brain region, and was the featured subject in Olaf Sporns’s book Discovering the Human Connectome.

Connectonomics is actually a theme that’s featured in several titles Olaf Sporns published with us, including Networks of the Brain and Mapping Cells, Circuits, and Systems. All of these books focus on the human brain’s complex systems and how these can be illuminated using network theory. Essentially, this is a tool that Olaf Sporns introduced to neuroscientists as a method of tracking and understanding the brain. This has allowed for alternative ways of collecting and analyzing data.

As Sporns says in his introduction to Discovering the Human Connectome: “If I had to point to the single most important thing to know about how the brain works, my answer would be “connectivity.” … I believe it is fair to say that the brain’s computational power depends critically (though certainly not entirely) on how individual processing elements are networked together. The human brain is a network of extraordinary complexity, an intricate web of billions of neurons connected by trillions of synapses and wiring that spans a distance halfway to the moon. How this network is connected is important for virtually all facets of the brain’s integrative function. Brain connectivity allows neurons to exhibit an extraordinary range of physiological responses and enables them to generate and distribute information, to coordinate their activity over short and long distances, and to retain a structural record of past events.”

Though Sporns’s books were published in 2010 and 2012, the research hasn’t expired. Sporns discussed the human connectome as a guest on the podcast Brain Science with Ginger Campbell, M.D. Additionally the Dana Foundation, sponsor of Brain Awareness Week, hosts articles online that reference how important and topical this subject remains. In an article from two years ago titled ‘Network Neuroscience’ Offers a Better Understanding of Brain Function by Jim Schnabel, Sporns is quoted saying: “There has really been a sea change in the field… We’re starting to look at brains as systems with interconnections…” The key words that stand out to me are “starting to look”. Though several years old now, the research on connectivity is truly only just beginning.

Sporns has recently taken on the role of Editor in the new journal Network Neuroscience, which aims to publish “innovative scientific work that significantly advances our understanding of network organization and function in the brain across all scales, from molecules and neurons to circuits and systems.” Simultaneously tangible but just beyond our grasp, brain connectivity is a topic that will be holding sway on brain research for years to come.