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Olaf Sporns
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences

Last modified: Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sporns' 'Networks of the Brain': a roadmap to new research in brain mapping, virtual models

Feb. 10, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- In the emerging discipline of network neuroscience, Indiana University neuroscientist Olaf Sporns is playing a diverse and important role. His book Networks of the Brain, recently published by MIT Press, aims to synthesize the current knowledge and theory pertaining to mapping the brain and presents a fundamental text on this complex subject.

Networks of the Brain

Networks of the Brain focuses on how different parts of the brain are connected to one another and how this network architecture relates to brain function and disease. His book further investigates the anatomy, development and evolution of complex brain networks and provides a roadmap for future research including two projects Sporns himself is currently involved with.

"There's a big movement all across the social and natural sciences to look at things in terms of networks," said Sporns, professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in IU Bloomington's College of Arts and Sciences. "In the neurosciences, increasingly we aren't looking at only one part of the brain, but seeing how the interactions between different parts make them work together."

The human brain contains billions of cells that are connected through numerous pathways and networks that remain to be fully traced and charted. This task of mapping these connections can be likened to cartographers constructing maps of a vast and unknown continent. Identifying the large features like rivers or mountain ranges may not be so difficult, but being able to determine how all these features are geographically related in ever finer detail becomes increasingly more challenging. Investigating the web of connections between the countless areas of the brain would be like mapping the Everglades in the 1700s.

In addition to writing his book, Sporns devotes much of his time to two projects that are naturally linked to the research included in Networks. Both of these projects are collaborations with researchers from other universities. The first of these projects is to develop a "virtual brain," a powerful computational model that can simulate brain function; and the second is called the Human Connectome Project, established to map the human brain's major connections.

"Both of these projects are the first of their kind," said Sporns, a co-investigator in the Human Connectome and virtual brain research projects. "The connectome project is spearheading the mapping of human brain connectivity, and the virtual brain project is about building a computational model of the human brain that may become useful in a clinical setting."

The Virtual Brain project is being funded by the McDonnell Foundation and is led by the University of Toronto, with 11 other sites -- including University College London, Universitee Mediterannee Marseille, UPF Barcelona, University of California, Irvine, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Scientists are aiming to compile all of the information pertaining to brain function and connectivity so that they can design a model of the healthy brain. This would allow researchers to test the effects of neural stimulation or changes in neural connectivity in various neurological scenarios and see how they affect different parts of the brain in a way they never have been able to before.

The Human Connectome Project seeks to discover the neural pathways that underlie brain function. This massive undertaking is being funded by the National Institutes of Health with more than $30 million, and the main partners are Washington University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Oxford. This five-year study, which began last fall, is examining the brains of 1,200 healthy individuals using various types of neuro-imaging to understand the network architecture of connections in the brain. The Human Connectome Project will also look at behavioral and genomic data to determine how they relate to brain connectivity.

"There are many parallels between the Human Connectome and Human Genome projects in that both projects will give us a unique map," Sporns said. "The Connectome project isn't going to solve all of the problems we face in studying the brain but like the Genome project, it is going to provide us with a great new foundation for asking new research questions and for understanding the network basis of neuroscience."

Thus far, neuroscience research utilizing network approaches is producing very promising results. Scientists are acquiring a wealth of new and useful information that is getting them closer to understanding how the brain works, and how disruptions of networks can lead to brain disorders.

"In the next five to 10 years we are going to have a much better and much more refined understanding of brain structure and function," said a confident Sporns. "Network approaches will open up new horizons in neuroscience."

Sporns can be reached at or 812-855-2772.