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Better Than Human

Understanding the Brain's Wiring

In the past 15 years or so, science has delved into the structure of the brain, identifying areas and figuring out what they do with PET, MRI, CAT and fMRI scans. Our understanding has gone from Paul MacLean's division into the "triune brain" -- reptilian brain, limbic system and neocortex -- to distinctions like the anterior commissure and the cingulate gyrus.

Today, psychologists still use metaphors to discuss how the brain works: the social brain, the reward center, the dopamine pathway. They're getting closer to understand how the brain is organized, but metaphor and hypothesis are still central.

According to Technology Review, the field of connectomics could soon provide a map of every connection in the brain. According to the story:

Denk, Seung, and their collaborators are now developing sensitive new imaging techniques and machine-learning algorithms to automate the construction process. They have already generated a partial wiring diagram of part of the rabbit retina. But they'll need to make their technique a million times faster to finally bring larger maps--like that of a cortical column--into the realm of reality.

If they pulled this off, it would help psychiatrists treating kids whose brain development has been thwarted or twisted by early neglect or abuse. They could actually understand "the oxytocin system," for example, and determine whether therapy was rebuilding the oxytocin response.