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November 10, 2010

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To Fight Diseases, Colleges Push Effort to Create Better Brain Maps

By Paul Basken
From The Chronicle of Higher Education

n the years after World War II, the French psychiatrist Jean Talairach was so determined to help epilepsy patients that he devised a detailed map of the brain to guide doctors during surgery.

A half-century later, Dr. Talairach's grid system, despite major shortcomings—it was based solely on the brain of a small, 60-year-old French woman—remains a standard atlas for surgery and for neurological research.

This fall, on 11 university campuses in the United States and Europe, scientists have embarked on a $40-million, five-year, federally sponsored project to redraw the map. They are using new incarnations of imaging technology to vastly improve the basic understanding of the connections that wire together the brain, in the hope that their work may help people with debilitating mental conditions like Alzheimer's disease and severe autism.

It's called the Human Connectome Project, a name chosen to invoke the groundbreaking significance of last decade's Human Genome Project, a chart of human DNA. And while that $3-billion endeavor had to map approximately 25,000 genes, the Connectome Project, with much less money, will try to bring order to a system of some 100 billion neurons in each human brain.

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