The Value of the Connectome: Seung and Movshon Debate

Connectome debate imageFrom left to right: Movshon, Zimmer, Krulwich, and Seung.

Last night’s debate at Columbia University between neuroscientists Sebastian Seung and J. Anthony Movshon was billed as a heavyweight fight. In his welcoming address, in front of a packed house, Stuart Firestein referred to the participants as gladiators and the moderators as referees. And while he ended by saying “Let’s get ready to rumble!” the debate was rather temperate. The event, moderated by Carl Zimmer (Discover, The New York Times) and Robert Krulwich (NPR), was presented by NeuWrite and sponsored by the Dana Foundation.

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Brainwave: Welcome to Connectome

Last night, New York City’s Rubin Museum (a new Brain Awareness Week partner!) drew a full house for its Brainwave programWelcome to Connectome.” Dateline NBC's Jane Pauley and MIT Computational Neuroscience Professor Sebastian Seung, Ph.D., treated the audience to a discussion about the daunting task of mapping the brain and how this effort can lead to a better understanding of the biological basis of identity.

The connectome, according to Seung, is “the complete map of all the neural connections in your brain.” Each connectome is unique, he said, shaped by genes and over time by experience. Scientists hope that mapping these connections will lead to a better understanding of the origins of behavior and mental disorders, resulting in earlier treatments (see Dana’s recent article “Beyond the Connectome”).

With more than 100 billion neurons making connections in the human brain, you can imagine what a large undertaking this project is. Mapping involves tracing paths of the wiring and synapses in the brain, said Seung, and because of the density, it is done one cubic millimeter at a time.

Seung and his colleagues invite members of the public to help expedite the color-mapping process, by participating on their website eyewire.org, designed by Seung’s students at MIT. In a recent MIT News article, Seung explained the process, “The person can click the mouse and say ‘color here,’ and the computer starts coloring again, and keeps going, and then stops again when it’s uncertain. So you’re guiding the computer.” This is a far better use of your computer time than playing solitaire!

While citizen scientists are aiding his research, Seung hopes that they will take away something in return. He believes access to eyewire will help “empower people to learn about the brain.” Not to mention the program has a funky, slightly hypnotic element to it, for those of you drawn to that sort of thing.

All in all, it’s clear that scientists in the connectomics field really have their work cut out for them, but with enthusiastic researchers like Seung, it’s hard not to get excited about the possibilities. As neuropsychologist Susan Bookheimer said in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “[t]he study of connectivity is as hot as hot can get.”

To learn more about the connectome, watch Seung’s 2010 TED Talk. Seung also has a new book, “Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are.” He participated in an author talk at Harvard earlier this week, which is available in video online.

–Ann L. Whitman

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