Have you ever wondered why every person is unique? Could it be because our brains are wired differently? Our goal is to test this hypothesis by developing and applying technologies for finding connectomes, maps of connections between neurons. We will search for “connectopathies,” pathological patterns of connectivity associated with disorders like autism and schizophrenia. We will attempt to see memories by determining whether, as long hypothesized, the brain is wired differently after learning something new.
At the end of the last millennium, the Human Genome Project (HGP) was hot. Scientists around the world were working furiously to determine the sequence of the nucleotides (A’s, T’s, G’s and C’s) that make up DNA. They declared victory in 2003, announcing the completion of 3 billion letters of genetic code. Today, companies like 23 and me are selling personal genomes to help people learn about their susceptibilities to certain diseases, their ancestry, and other traits.
Yet most of us know that we are not our genes; we are much more. Skills like playing a musical instrument, and memories of our lives are the result of our experiences. They are not encoded in our genes, which remain essentially fixed from the moment of conception. Such information is incorporated into our brains, and neuroscientists have hypothesized that this happens through changes in our connectomes.
Connectomes are known to change throughout life through a number of mechanisms, which can be summarized as the four R’s: reweighting: strengthening or weakening of synapses, reconnection: creation or elimination of synapses, rewiring: growth or retraction of branches, and regeneration: creation or elimination of neurons. The four R’s are not only influenced by experiences, but are also guided by genes, especially during the development of young brains. This could account for the power that genes have over our identities. In short, the connectome is the cool place where nature and nurture collide to produce the forever evolving and all so fascinating us.
Neuroscientists have found ample evidence that thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are encoded in intricate patterns of neural activity that flicker across our brains. Many have concluded that we are the activities of our neurons. This conception of the self corresponds to the ever-changing stream of consciousness that we all experience. But there is a complementary notion of the self as a stable entity, which remains roughly the same day after day, but also changes slowly throughout life. The stability of this self and its capacity for gradual change are hypothesized to arise from the properties of the connectome.
The relation between neural activity and connectivity can be intuited with a metaphor. Since the connectome defines the pathways along which neural activity can flow, we might regard it as the streambed of consciousness. The metaphor is a powerful one. Over a long period of time, in the same way that the water of the stream slowly shapes the bed, neural activity changes the connectome. The two notions of the self — as both the fast-moving, ever-changing stream and the more stable but slowly transforming streambed — are thus inextricably linked. WiredDifferently is about the self as the streambed, the self in the connectome — the self that has been neglected for too long.
Your connectome contains a million times more connections than your genome has letters. Finding an entire human connectome is one of the greatest scientific and technological challenges of all time. At the present time, researchers are working on a more modest challenge: mapping connectomes in small chunks of brain. This still involves numerous technical barriers, yet is expected to be soluble in the near future. Such technological progress will enable WiredDifferently to tackle its scientific goals: to find the connectional basis of memories and mental disorders.