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The Biggest Brain Maps Ever Created Are Pushing the Frontiers of Neuroscience

Published in Artificial Intelligence, Bioinformatics, Scanners and Imaging.

Our quest to understand the brain’s connections is a bit like aliens trying to understand Earthlings from outer space. Imagine having to track down every single person and their conversations across different continents, reconstruct noisy snippets into coherent messages, and from that data, infer the zeitgeist of the human race.

That, essentially, is what neuroscientists are trying to achieve with brain maps. Massive projects are racing to trace connections among the brain’s data-crunching inhabitants, neurons—collectively called the connectome. And if we can “listen in” on those conversations, we can decipher the brain’s inner workings which power our memories, thoughts, and behaviors.

The idea isn’t without controversy. The brain is a highly flexible, adjustable, and adaptive being. One main contention is that a connectome—any connectome—is just a snapshot in time, with little potential to reflect a broader population. To skeptics, tracing a connectome is like predicting traffic patterns by staring at a paper map: utterly impossible.

This year overhauled that criticism. For the first time, scientists were able to predict reproductive behaviors of one animal, the lab-darling roundworm C. elegans, using an algorithm based on its connectome. A book-length map of another lab-favorite critter, the fruit fly, dazzled neuroscientists with new insights into spatial navigation, with implications from virtual reality (VR) to robotics.

Also in play are hefty projects to map our own brains, across ages and for diverse neurological disorders. Even Google is on board, providing computational resources to deal with an explosion of data and processing requirements, eyeing potential input for advancing AI.