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Human Connectome Project

The ARC Centre for Integrative Brain Function and MASSIVE are together playing an active part in Australia's involvement in an ambitious program to understand the nerve connections in the human brain, the so-called 'connectome'.

The scale of the Human Connectome Project is grand from various perspectives. Operating across a number of major universities in the US, the HCP aims to publish for use by the scientific community data from high resolution MRI scans of about 1,200 individuals, made up of four or more brothers and sisters – including twin pairs – from 300 families.

Nothing as big has been done in relation to charting the brain before, but the project has a parallel in the Human Genome Project, completed more than a decade ago.

To help Australian neuroscience researchers, MASSIVE is both hosting a mirror of the HCP data and providing critical large-scale storage space and the many hours of computing time needed to make sense of the data.

Associate Professor Alex Fornito is receiving first-hand the benefits of a local mirror of HCP data. His key research interests lie in identifying the genes that determine how networks of nerves are connected in the brain and piecing together how the connectome influences different behaviours, cognitive abilities and the personalities of individuals.

"We simply could not do our studies if the Australian mirror of the HCP did not exist," says Alex. "Thanks to its availability through MASSIVE, members of my lab require only a notebook computer to log in and gain full access to the storage, computing power and time we need."

The MASSIVE mirror site receives HCP data in the form of brain images. Alex and other researchers then subject the image to various processing algorithms to extract the measures they need. The software required to run the analysis is installed and maintained by MASSIVE staff.

Alex will use the resources to understand the connectivity of 'hub' regions of the brain – regions with a larger number of connections than other areas. Rather like the role of Heathrow or Dubai International airports in distributing passengers around the world, these hubs play an important role in routing information traffic in the brain.

Alex has a good starting point for his HCP-related research. His work in mice has revealed hubs of brain network activity that are enriched for the expression of certain classes of genes, in particular those involved in regulating the synthesis and breakdown of ATP. He now aims to extend these findings to humans.

Since the HCP data became available to researchers in October 2015 six Australian research groups have tapped into the wealth of information it contains.