I've just begun reading the recently released review book, "Connectome," from Sebastian Seung of MIT. The basic notion of the book is that you are the emergent result from the interconnections of some 100 billion neurons in your brain. "You are your connectome."
This is not a novel idea at its most basic level, however, Dr. Seung is bringing this exciting hypothesis to a broader popular understanding, which will help guide future generations of appreciation for the utterly incredible mass of flesh lodged in our skulls.
Mapping the complete interconnections of neurons remains to this day a daunting task for neuroscientists, but a task in which I'm is particularly interested. It took decades of manual labor by White, et al. to map the mere 302 neurons in the wee little worm C. elegans. The complete structural architecture of its neuronal connections--it's connectome--is now readily available for research and exploration. Now, imagine extending this task to the human brain, but plan on taking a 300+ million-fold leap that would necessarily require technological advances not yet fully realized.
Despite this apparent impossibility, there is just something awesome about the human brain that makes us who we are, and we just have to plow forward and try to discover more. There's something "in there," or, something that emerges from what's inside that especially sets us apart from all other known life on this planet. If we could tap into that "something," then we might just have a better understanding of who we are as an organism. Tapping into the structure of our brains--our connectome--is a great place to start.
Watch Sebastian Seung's TED Talk, "I am my connectome." :: July 2010
It seems that we will have to patiently wait for technological advances--although they are increasing at accelerating rates--to get us to the ability to efficiently map our personal connectomes. In the mean time, we do have an extraordinarily powerful tool that is ready today to help with developing procedures for mapping neuronal connections in living brains: this tool is the brains of citizen scientists.
It is from the laboratory of Sebastian Seung and enthusiastic collaborating scientists who bring to the citizen science community the exciting opportunity to directly map interconnections in neural tissue. The online system is called eyewire, and provides images from 3-D stacks of neuronal tissue from the retina and guides citizen scientists through a process of identifying connecting features. By visually evaluating two-dimensional cross-sections of tissue images created with electron microscopy, users work through the layers by recognizing connecting features between each image. The identified cross-layer features from the efforts of citizen scientists can then be reconstructed into a three-dimensional structural map of the neurons--and their connections--throughout the tissue.
A waiting list is currently in place to control the influx of interested citizen scientists, so I have not yet had the opportunity to test out the system (but, I'm on "the list"!). I hope to be in soon to participate in this great project that is at one of the core interests of Dynamic Patterns Research. If you are already participating now, please let us know what you think of the system.
Your brain is the most awesome thing in the Universe. We know so little about it, but we are on the cusp of a revolution in a new understanding of what it is and how it works. Now, citizen scientists can be an integral part in this revolution so that anyone can scientifically better know their inner self.