New Center for Integrative Connectomics Aims to Create "Google Map of the Brain"

With its 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections, the brain contains many more synapses than the galaxy does stars. A field of neuroscience known as connectomics charts these constellations of circuits and helps researchers understand the processes of neural development, plasticity, degeneration, and disease, yielding new therapeutic possibilities for conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s Diseases. “This research helps us understand how the brain’s circuitry works,” said Hongwei Dong, associate professor of neurology at USC’s Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute and director of the CIC. “If you tell someone to come visit you in California, where should they go? We have really narrowed it down: I live in North Hollywood in this apartment building. This will help people in the future to really understand the pathways for diseases with specific symptoms.”

But generating a map of an organ as complex as the brain means collecting terabytes of data. Luckily USC’s new Center for Integrative Connectomics (CIC) is well equipped to tackle this challenge.

An Evolving Map of the Brain

Dong’s expertise lies in neuroanatomy, where he has investigated the connections between hundreds of brain structures that coordinate to regulate behavior. In 2008, he used the data he collected from mice to create the Allen Reference Atlas (ARA), the first open-access brain atlas in the field.

The ARA serves as the architectural foundation for Dong’s Mouse Connectome Project (MCP), which traces bundles of neurons, or tracts, to map the brain’s functional networks. In a flagship paper, Dong and his team traced over 2,000 of the brain’s “cellular highways,” overturning the prevailing view that the cortex is a messy tangle of neurons by demonstrating its organization into distinct subnetworks. This insight earned Dong a high-profile paper in Cell, which was recognized as a landmark publication for the journal and was later featured in the 40 years of Cell timeline.