Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Brain Imaging and Stuttering

An interesting article appeared in the Wall Street Journal (January 24, 2012) entitled “Probing the Brain’s Mysteries.”

Much like mapping the elements of the human genome (i.e. the Human Genome Project), researchers are making great strides in mapping the basic wiring of the brain through what has been called the Human Connectome Project.  These studies are expected to illuminate the complex relationships among the billions of neurons responsible for mental functions such as memory, reasoning, emotion and even speech.

The progress has come about through advances making magnetic resonance brain scans 7 times more quickly and the analysis of neural connections 50 times faster than a year ago.  In addition, techniques have been developed to better reveal the brain’s connections.

This information for several thousand individuals is being input to databases of brain scans, medical data, psychological profiles, and genetic information.  The database, which will be available for others to analyze, may be useful in uncovering ailments, such as stuttering, associated with the malfunctioning of neural connections.

The task at hand is monumental in that the human brain has a million times more connections than the genome has letters of DNA.  The automation of the mapping of individual synapses is expected to facilitate this effort.

The Human Connectome Project is a five year effort funded by the National Institutes of Health.  The work is done by combining four imaging techniques, including a new method called diffusion magnetic-resonance imaging that allows the mapping of white matter nerve fibers for the first time.

In addition a human brain atlas providing an interactive guide to the brain’s anatomy and genes is near completion at the Allen Institute for Brain Science.  The Institute intends to link the brain atlas to data from the Connectome Project.

Researchers in communication disorders such as stuttering should take advantage of this trove of information to help elucidate its neurological underpinnings.  I would hope that individuals who stutter might be included among the individuals in the Human Connectome database.