Neuronews: Human Connectome Project releases major data set on brain connectivity

The Human Connectome Project, a five-year endeavor to link brain connectivity to human behavior, has released a set of high-quality imaging and behavioral data to the scientific community. The project has two major goals: to collect vast amounts of data using advanced brain imaging methods on a large population of healthy adults, and to make the data freely available so that scientists worldwide can make further discoveries about brain circuitry. 

The initial data release includes brain imaging scans plus behavioral information — individual differences in personality, cognitive capabilities, emotional characteristics and perceptual function — obtained from 68 healthy adult volunteers. Over the next several years, the number of subjects studied will increase steadily to a final target of 1,200. The initial release is an important milestone because the new data have much higher resolution in space and time than data obtained by conventional brain scans.

…The imaging data set released by the HCP takes up about two terabytes (2 trillion bytes) of computer memory — the equivalent of more than 400 DVDs — and is stored in a customized database called “ConnectomeDB.”

“ConnectomeDB is the next-generation neuroinformatics software for data sharing and data mining. It’s a convenient and user-friendly way for scientists to explore the available HCP data and to download data of interest for their research,” says Daniel S. Marcus, PhD, assistant professor of radiology and director of the Neuroinformatics Research Group at Washington University School of Medicine. “The Human Connectome Project represents a major advance in sharing brain imaging data in ways that will accelerate the pace of discovery about the human brain in health and disease.” 

(Source: WUSTL Newsroom)

NeuronewsBrain connections may explain why girls mature faster

Newcastle University scientists have discovered that as the brain re-organizes connections throughout our life, the process begins earlier in girls which may explain why they mature faster during the teenage years.

As we grow older, our brains undergo a major reorganization reducing the connections in the brain. Studying people up to the age of 40, scientists led by Dr Marcus Kaiser and Ms Sol Lim at Newcastle University found that while overall connections in the brain get streamlined, long-distance connections that are crucial for integrating information are preserved.

The researchers suspect this newly-discovered selective process might explain why brain function does not deteriorate – and indeed improves –during this pruning of the network. Interestingly, they also found that these changes occurred earlier in females than in males.

… The researchers at Newcastle, Glasgow and Seoul Universities evaluated the scans of 121 healthy participants between the ages of 4 and 40 years as this is where the major connectivity changes can be seen during this period of maturation and improvement in the brain… Using a non-invasive technique called diffusion tensor imaging – a special measurement protocol for Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanners – they demonstrated that fibres are overall getting pruned that period. However, they found that not all projections (long-range connections) between brain regions are affected to the same extent; changes were influenced differently depending on the types of connections.

Projections that are preserved were short-cuts that quickly link different processing modules, e.g. for vision and sound, and allow fast information transfer and synchronous processing. Changes in these connections have been found in many developmental brain disorders including autism, epilepsy and schizophrenia.

The researchers have demonstrated for the first time that the loss of white matter fibres between brain regions is a highly selective process – a phenomenon they call preferential detachment. They show that connections between distant brain regions, between brain hemispheres, and between processing modules lose fewer nerve fibres during brain maturation than expected. The researchers say this may explain how we retain a stable brain network during brain maturation.

Commenting on the fact that these changes occurred earlier in females than males, Ms Sol Lim explains: “The loss of connectivity during brain development can actually help to improve brain function by reorganizing the network more efficiently. Say instead of talking to many people at random, asking a couple of people who have lived in the area for a long time is the most efficient way to know your way. In a similar way, reducing some projections in the brain helps to focus on essential information.”

(News & Image Source: Newcastle University) 

Neuronews: New study reveals insight into how the brain processes shape and color

A new study by Wellesley College neuroscientists is the first to directly compare brain responses to faces and objects with responses to colors. The paper, by Bevil Conway, Wellesley Associate Professor of Neuroscience, and Rosa Lafer-Sousa, a 2009 Wellesley graduate currently studying in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences program at MIT, reveals new information about how the brain’s inferior temporal cortex processes information.

Located at the base of the brain, the inferior temporal cortex (IT) is a large expanse of tissue that has been shown to be critical for object perception. This region of the brain is commonly divided into posterior, central, and anterior parts, but it remains unclear as to whether these partitions constitute distinct areas. An existing, popular theory is that the parts represent a hierarchical organization of information processing, a notion that has previously been supported by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in monkeys. 

For their study, Conway and Lafer-Sousa used non-invasive fMRI to measure responses across the brains of rhesus monkeys to a range of different stimuli and obtained responses to images of objects, faces, places and colored stripes. “The technique enabled us to determine the spatial distribution of responses across the brain, and has been useful in figuring out how the visual brain is organized,” Conway said.

… “Shape and color are both properties of objects and are processed by the parts of the brain known to be important for detecting and discriminating objects. However, the way this part of brain is organized has not been clear, for example, is color computed by different parts of this region than those that compute shape?” The answer to this question, Conway said, has deep implications for understanding the general computational principles used by the brain and how the brain evolved. 

“Our work showed that, to a large extent, color and faces are handled by separate, parallel streams, and that these pieces of information are processed by connected, serial stages,” Conway said. “One can imagine the processing as an assembly line, where some aspect of faces – and some aspect of color – is computed first. The output is then sent to another region downstream that makes a subsequent computation.”

… “The most striking aspect of the study is what it reveals about the precision of the organization of the brain. We often think that because the brain consists of billions of neurons, that at some level it must be quite variable how the neurons are organized,” Conway said. “The study shows that there is a remarkable precision in organization of the neural circuits for high-level vision, which will make tractable many questions bridging cognitive science and systems neuroscience.”

… The researchers note that it remains unclear whether the organizational principles found in humans apply to monkeys, an important issue that bears on cortical evolution. However, their results suggest that the IT comprises parallel, multi-stage processing networks subject to one organizing principle.“

(Source: Medical Xpress, Image Credit: Bevil R. Conway, Wellesley College)