Mapping the brain

Charles Bell: Anatomy of the Brain, c. 1802 by brain_blogger  (cc) (From Flickr)
Charles Bell: Anatomy of the Brain, c. 1802 by brain_blogger (cc) (From Flickr)

Read an interesting piece today on MIT News titled Patterns of connections reveal brain functions.  The article was mostly about how scientists there had managed to identify brain functionality by mapping the connections it had to other parts of the brain.

They had determined that facial recognition functionality could be recognized just by the connections it had to the rest of the brain. But that’s not what I found interesting.

Seeing connections in living brains

By using MRIs and diffusion-weighted imaging (applying MRI magnetic fields in many different directions and detecting water flow) they can now identify connections between locations within a living brain.  I suppose this has been going on for quite a while now but this is the first I have heard about it.

The article didn’t mention the granularity of the connections they were able to detect, but presumably this would get better over time as MRI’s became more detailed.  Could they concievably identify a single synapse or neuron to neuron connection?  Could they identify the synapse’s connection strength or almost as important its positive or negative gain?

Technology to live forever

Ray Kurzweil predicted that in the near future, science would be able to download a living brain into a computer and by doing so an “individual” could live forever in “virtual life”.  One of the first steps in this process is the ability to read out neural connections.  Of course we would need more than just connections alone, but mapping is a first step.

Together with mapping brains and neuromorphic computing advances coming from IBM and MIT labs, we could conceivably do something like what Anders Sandgren and Nick Bostrom described in their Whole Brain Emulation paper.  But even with a detailed, highly accurate map of neurons and synapses, the cognitive computing elements available today are not yet ready to emulate a whole brain – thank God.

Other uses

I am little frightened to think of the implications of such brain mapping capabilities.  Not to mention the ability to read connections in living brains could potentially be used to read connections in deceased (presumably preserved) brains just as well.

Would such a device be able to emulate a person’s brain enough to be able to extract secrets – gives brain washing a whole new meaning.  Probably, at a minimum, such technology could provide an infinitely better lie detector.


Another step on the road to the singularity.