When the Drosophila genome was first sequenced and released some 20 years ago, it kicked off a deluge of genetic research that has borne amazing fruit in recent years. The same is about to happen in the field of connectomics, as a Janelia and Google project has just released the beginnings of a neuron-level wiring diagram for a fruit fly brain.
Many scientifically-minded biological determinists believe that we are all merely meat computers, taking in stimulus from the outside world and spitting out responses. That if we had enough data about the structure and function of our brains, we could accurately predict exactly what we’d do in any given situation. That free will is an illusion generated by a beautifully complex biological algorithm – we are all just operating according to our brain structure and experiential inputs.
If that’s the case, then research on the connectome must rank among the most important areas of research currently underway. Check out our connectonomics primer if you’d like to know more, but here’s the meat of it: the brain is an insanely densely packed spaghetti bowl of twisting, branching neurons, in which each neuron can have a massively variable shape, thickness and 3D geometry.
These neurons can connect to other neurons, sometimes multiple times with the same neuron, at points called synapses. As we put it in the primer: “It’s a colossal oversimplification, but the theory is that each of these pathways, with all their touchpoints, branches and connections with other pathways, might represent a thought, memory or action. The more you do it, or think it, the larger and thicker that pathway becomes. The more you learn about it, the more physical connections it forms with other neurons and processes, further building your map of understanding.