Launched in 2009 as a Blueprint Grand Challenge, the NIH Human Connectome Project (HCP) is an ambitious effort to map the neural pathways that underlie human brain function. The overarching purpose of the Project is to acquire and share data about the structural and functional connectivity of the human brain. It will greatly advance the capabilities for imaging and analyzing brain connections, resulting in improved sensitivity, resolution, and utility, thereby accelerating progress in the emerging field of human connectomics. Understanding these wiring patterns within and across individuals will help researchers begin to decipher the electrical signals that generate our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
HCP has produced stunning maps of neural fibers crisscrossing the brain. It has revolutionized the mapping of connections in the human brain, and has laid foundational groundwork for using brain imaging measures of connectivity as an aid in diagnosis of disease. HCP has had a transformative impact on the field, paving the way toward a detailed understanding of how our brain circuitry changes as we age and how it differs in psychiatric and neurologic illness. Altogether, HCP will lead to major advances in our understanding of what makes us uniquely human and will set the stage for future studies of abnormal brain circuits in many neurological and psychiatric disorders.
The technical advances achieved already in HCP have transformed the field and allowed the neuroscience research community to aggregate data in unprecedented ways. Importantly, all of the data produced by HCP is freely shared with the research community through a customized database created by the Blueprint funded Connectome Coordination Facility. Over 100 publications emerged from the initial HCP data release.
HCP began in September 2010 when Blueprint awarded $40 million to two collaborating research consortia to map the human brain’s connections in high resolution. These two major cooperative agreements took complementary approaches to deciphering the brain's complex wiring diagram. Both efforts built upon existing multidisciplinary collaborations and employed a multiple PI leadership approach that provided a rigorous system of organization and oversight to each program.
The two research consortia that were established to pursue these complementary five-year projects were:
Washington University in St. Louis/University of Minnesota/Oxford University (the WU-Minn HCP consortium) – co-led by Dr. David Van Essen and Dr. Kamil Ugurbil - set out to comprehensively map human brain circuitry in 1200 healthy adults using cutting-edge methods of noninvasive neuroimaging.
Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard University and the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) – co-led by Dr. Bruce Rosen and Dr. Arthur Toga – set out to create a new magnetic resonance imager optimized for measuring connectome data.
For more information see the NIH press release, "$40 million awarded to trace human brain's connections."
Building on the success of the HCP, Blueprint launched the second phase of the Connectome Program by creating the Lifespan Connectome in 2015. While research participants in the original HCP studies were 22-35 years old, the Lifespan Connectome extended data collection from healthy subjects of all ages. The resulting three program announcements focused on different age cohorts: 0-5 years old (RFA-MH-16-160), 5-21 years old (RFA-MH-16-150), and 36-90+ years old (RFA-AG-16-004). Altogether these projects will map the long-distance brain connections and their variability in unprecedent detail in more than 3,000 children and adults across the United States. Thanks to the powerful new tools and technologies generated by HCP, the monumental task of mapping human brain circuitry as we age is becoming a reality.
In addition to expanding the age distribution of HCP research participants, in 2014 a subset of six Blueprint Institutes invested in collecting connectome data from subjects with certain clinical diagnoses. The Connectomes Related to Human Disease Funding Opportunity Announcement, supported by the National Eye Institute (NEI), National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), National Institute on Aging (NIA), National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) awarded fourteen projects in FY2015 and FY2016. These included investigations into the structural and functional connectome in Alzheimer’s disease subtypes; human connectomes for low vision, blindness, and sight restoration; the epilepsy connectome project; the Amish connectome project on mental illness; connectomes related to anxiety and depression in adolescents; connectomic imaging in familial and sporadic frontotemporal degeneration; human connectome project for early psychosis; and connectomics of brain aging and dementia. These disease connectome projects are paving the way toward a detailed understanding of how brain circuitry differs in psychiatric and neurologic illness.
Data Coordinating Center
The Connectome Coordination Facility, funded by Blueprint in 2015, maintains a central data repository for Human Connectome data collected from the original HCP consortia as well as other research laboratories. The Coordination Facility also offers a help desk to advise the research community about the best data collection strategies that will allow harmonization between new and existing data. Information about the HCP can be found at the Connectome Coordination Facility web site. The long term storage of HCP data is being provided by the NIMH Data Archive.