World's most detailed scans to unlock brain's secrets

Scientists have released world's most detailed brain scans yet, in a bid to better understand the working of the vital organ.

Researchers involved in the Human Connectome Project have published the brain scans of 68 adults in the study.

The project aims to determine how a person's brain structure influences their talents and behaviour. They eventually hope to scan 1,200 people and also collect details of their behavioural traits and DNA.

The project leader, Professor David Van Essen of Washington University in St Louis, told BBC News that sharing the data with the international community of researchers would spur rapid advances in brain science.

"We are very optimistic that as the community delves in and begins working on these data sets, they will reveal new insights into the brain circuits of healthy adults," he said.

Brains of the subjects involved in the project were scanned for a total of four hours. For part of that time, they carried out a battery of tasks, which included arithmetic, listening to stories, gambling and moving parts of their body.

The scans show how different parts are connected by nerve fibres and also the thickness of the bundles, which is thought to be an indication of the importance or strength of a particular connection- a so-called "structural map".

Scanning can also show which parts of the brain are activated for particular tasks - known as a "functional map".

This information will aid researchers to determine if an individual's brain wiring is related to their skills, such as musicality, sociability and aptitude for science or maths.

According to Oxford University's Dr Tim Behrens, who is collaborating with Professor Van Essen, the study will "uncover which neural pathways are important in determining human behaviours".

"We have the highest quality data of the entire human brain that the world has ever seen. The question is that with more cutting edge (scanning) methods, how much can we decipher the circuits that give us our distinctive capabilities?" Behrens said.

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