Monday, September 14, 2015

Connectome - how brains wiring makes us who we are - book overview

While away for the INAP conference a fortnight ago, I took along the book 'Connectome - how brains wiring make us who we are' by Sebastian Seung borrowed from the local library following the watching (a month of so ago) of Professor Seung's Ted talk on the topic.

The introduction and part of chapter one of the book are available through Google books and this NY Times article provides a good summary of the rationale for the quest for understanding how the human brain works. Critiques can be found on the Guardian and Wall Street Journal.

I found the book to be very readable overview and introduction to the biological foundations of our brain. The book drills describes the difficult and ongoing challenge of unpacking how our brain works and trying to find 'where' our memories and experiences are actually stored in our brains. Professor Seung's work is based on computational neuroscience whereby computer software is used to unravel the structure of the brain through examination of electronic microscope images. Through using specialised 'tracing' software, the various pathways of neurons are colour coded. Providing a way to try to understand how our brain makes connections, how we access the brain's information and store new learning.

The underlying hypothesis is that pathways through neurons which become well used, become 'super highways' or state highways' through which our experiences are channeled. As some pathways become more used, they become well-worn tracks or connectomes. Finding these connectomes, provides a way to mentally trace individuals' experiences / memories. The challenge is to actually find these connectomes in the highly complex and intricate human brain, so studies are presently focused on animals with much smaller brains - like worms'. Ramping the tracing software up to cope with the intricacies presented by larger brains remains a major challenge.

The book is a good introduction to the micro-level information on how the brain works. The hunt for the connectomes is perhaps only able to supply part of the picture of how we do learn, remember and are what we are. Professor Seung's work adds to the growing understand we now have of how our brain works. However, much still needs to be done.

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