Connectomics: Mapping the Brain's Wiring Diagram

Jeff Lichtman
Jeremy R. Knowles Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Santiago Ramon y Cajal Professor of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University

Videography by Nerine & Robert Clemenzi, Edited by Nerine Clemenzi
Copyright © Philosophical Society of Washington.  All rights reserved.


Connectional maps of the brain may have value in developing models of both how the brain works and how it fails when subsets of neurons or synapses are missing or misconnected. Such maps might also provide detailed information about how brain circuits develop and age. I am eager to obtain such maps in neonatal animals because of a longstanding interest in the ways neuromuscular circuitry is modified during early postnatal life as axonal input to muscle fibers is pruned. Work in my laboratory has focused on obtaining complete wiring diagrams ("connectomes") of the projections of motor neuron axons in young and adult muscles. Each data set is large and typically made up of hundreds of confocal microscopy stacks of images which tile the three dimensional volume of a muscle. As a first step to analyze these data sets we developed computer assisted segmentation approaches and to make this task easier we have developed second generation "Brainbow" transgenic mice that, in essence, segment each axon by a unique fluorescent spectral hue. Once the axons are segmented, we have been able to graph the connectivity matrices that result. This effort has led to new insights into the developmental processes which help the mammalian nervous system mold itself based on experience. Analysis of these complete muscle connectomes show a striking single axis gradient of connectivity that we think is related to the ordered ranking of neural activity in axons (the "size principle" of Henneman). In brain however, as opposed to muscle, the high density of neuropil is overwhelming, which has precluded using the confocal optical approaches that have worked in the peripheral nervous system because there are too many neural processes in each optical section. We have thus developed of lossless automated physical sectioning strategy that generates thousands of ultra thin (~25 nm) sections on a firm plastic tape. We have developed a thin-section scanning electron microscopy approach to visualize these sections at 3nm lateral resolution. This method makes large scale serial microscopic analysis of brain volumes more routine. We are now focused on developing an automated pipeline to trace out neural circuits in brains using this technique.

About the Author:

Rick Potts

Jeff Lichtman is the Jeremy R. Knowles Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Santiago Ramon y Cajal Professor of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. He received an AB from Bowdoin (1973), and an M.D. and Ph.D. from Washington University (1980) where he worked for 30 years before moving to Cambridge in 2004. He is a member of the newly established Center for Brain Science. Lichtman's research interest revolves around the question of how mammalian brain circuits are physically altered by experiences, especially in early life. He has focused on the dramatic re-wiring of neural connections that takes place in early postnatal development when animals are doing most of their learning. This work has required the development of techniques such as "Brainbow" transgenic mice to visualize neural connections and monitor how they are altered over time. Recently his efforts have focused on developing new electron microscopy methods to map the entire wiring diagram of the developing and adult brain. This "connectomics" approach has as one of its aims uncovering the ways information is stored in neural networks.

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