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A Wiring Diagram of the Brain

Advances in medical imaging allow the Human Connectome Project to map neural connections

3 min read
A Wiring Diagram of the Brain
LIGHTBULB MOMENT: This color-coded map, created by researchers at the Human Connectome Project, illustrates relative levels of functional connectivity between points in the brain’s cerebral cortex.
Image: David Van Essen for the WU-Minn HCP Consortium

In early March, an unusual 2 terabytes of data hit the Web: the first batch of images from a massively ambitious brain-mapping effort called the Human Connectome Project. Thousands of images showed the brains of 68 healthy volunteers, with different regions glowing in bright jewel tones. These data, freely available for download via the project’s website, give neuroscientists unprecedented insights into which parts of the brain act in concert to do something as seemingly simple as recognizing a face. 

The project leaders say their work is enabled by very recent advances in both brain-scanning hardware and image-processing software. “It simply wouldn’t have been feasible five or six years ago to provide this amount and quality of data, and the ability to work with the data,” says David Van Essen, one of the project’s principal investigators and head of the anatomy and neurobiology department at the Washington University School of Medicine, in St. Louis. 

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Are You Ready for Workplace Brain Scanning?

Extracting and using brain data will make workers happier and more productive, backers say

11 min read
A photo collage showing a man wearing a eeg headset while looking at a computer screen.
Nadia Radic

Get ready: Neurotechnology is coming to the workplace. Neural sensors are now reliable and affordable enough to support commercial pilot projects that extract productivity-enhancing data from workers’ brains. These projects aren’t confined to specialized workplaces; they’re also happening in offices, factories, farms, and airports. The companies and people behind these neurotech devices are certain that they will improve our lives. But there are serious questions about whether work should be organized around certain functions of the brain, rather than the person as a whole.

To be clear, the kind of neurotech that’s currently available is nowhere close to reading minds. Sensors detect electrical activity across different areas of the brain, and the patterns in that activity can be broadly correlated with different feelings or physiological responses, such as stress, focus, or a reaction to external stimuli. These data can be exploited to make workers more efficient—and, proponents of the technology say, to make them happier. Two of the most interesting innovators in this field are the Israel-based startup InnerEye, which aims to give workers superhuman abilities, and Emotiv, a Silicon Valley neurotech company that’s bringing a brain-tracking wearable to office workers, including those working remotely.

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