Normally Monday is for usage or grammar topics and Friday is for vocabulary, but here’s a word you shouldn’t have to wait for: connectome. You’re going to encounter it a lot in the future.
Do you remember when you first heard the word genome? If you weren’t working in biology or genetics, chances are that you’d never encountered it until sometime during the mid- to late-1990s. Yet now it’s a word everyone is familiar with. Even if they don’t entirely understand it, they grasp the general meaning.
That’s largely thanks to the Human Genome Project (HGP), the decade-long, multi-billion dollar effort to sequence the entire human genome. One of the many things the HGP did was move this word from specialist obscurity (it dates from the 1920s) to common parlance.
The ‘next big thing’ in massive, government-sponsored biological research is the Human Connectome Project (HCP), now underway on at least 10 university campuses across the US.
Begun in late 2010 (and planned to run through mid-2015), the goal of the HCP is to map the human connectome in the same way that the human genome was mapped nearly a decade ago.
But I haven’t explained yet: what is a connectome?
A connectome is a neural map, depicting the connections in a brain. In this case, the HCP aims to develop a comprehensive map of the entire human nervous system, showing not just the connections between brain regions (and their functions) but, if possible, all neuronal connections down to the level of single neurons and synapses. The ultimate goal is to create a map so detailed that researchers (and someday doctors) will be able to look at an individual brain cell and be able to understand what its function is within the overall system.
The word connectome itself is practically brand new (first used only to 2005), but has already been enthusiastically embraced by researchers.
Here are some additional links to explore:
- NIH HCP website – your tax dollars at work.
- MCH/UCLA HCP website – I don’t fully understand the work, but the connectome images on this site are simply so beautiful I had to give the link twice. That’s right…the connectome is beautiful.
- WU/UMinn HCP website – the major research consortium.
- For basic information, in layman’s terms, here’s the wiki entry for connectome.
The HGP cost about $3 billion over 13 years. The HCP is only a drop in that bucket: so far, NIH has awarded about $40 million, and it’s intended to be a five-year project. Still, the insights that could come out of the HCP might be no less important.
Chances are, until you read this you didn’t know what a connectome was, let alone that you have one. Now you’ll be able to appear smarter than your friends at holiday parties.