Brain Anatomy – the Connectome, Brain Circuits – the Synaptome, and Love

The name Santiago Ramon y Cajal has periodically popped up on my blog (see related blog posts below). That’s because at the turn of the last century Cajal’s research, writing, and beautiful illustrations set in place many of the cornerstone ideas of modern neuroscience. The new review paper “From the Connectome to the Synaptome: An Epic Love Story” by Javier DeFelipe (published November 26, 2010 in Science) provides a clear brief review of these ideas and how they developed to now and what we are doing with them into the future. As a big bonus, this central story in the development of neuroscience is beautifully illustrated with anatomical diagram from between 1872 (hand drawings) to now (computer generated).

Note: Those interested in the stunning original drawings of the nervous system by Santiago Ramon y Cajal are certain to enjoy Javier DeFelipe’s book “Cajal’s Butterflies of the Soul: Science and Art.”

The “An Epic Love Story” subtitle to the paper derives from a quote that DeFelipe pulls from Cajal’s writing. The quote, represented here in its entirety, is remarkable given this is arguably the greatest brain scientist of all time writing about one of his key findings that brain cells are not continuous throughout the nervous system but are discrete entities that connect with each other through what we now call synapses.

    What mysterious forces precede the appearance of the processes [dendrites and axon], promoting their growth and ramification, provoking the coherent migration of the cells and fibres in predetermined directions, as if obeying a wise architectonic plan, and finally establishing those protoplasmic kisses, the intercellular articulations [synapses] that appear to constitute the final ecstasy of an epic love story? —Santiago Ramon y Cajal (Recuerdos de mi Vida, Moya, Madrid, 1917)

Note: It doesn’t say but I assume that Javier DeFelipe penned the translation from Spanish into English.

DeFelipe expresses appropriate caution at our ability to finally elucidate the complete anatomy and connectivity of the brain. Nevertheless, he displays optimism that new techniques will enable us to compile probabilistic brain atlases. I think he is right to be optimistic. Science is laborious and often tedious work and takes time. It took a half a century after Cajal suggested the existence of synapses for a synapse to be definitively identified using electron microscopy. The numerous new techniques, some of which we’ve talked about on this blog (see related blog posts below), will enable us to see enormous progress in elucidating the Connectome and Synaptome over the next half century.

Other related blog posts:

Brain Research Using Online Data Repositories: Brain Cell Shape and Function

The Connectome: Automated Submicron Reconstruction of Brain Circuitry

The Connectome: Video Journey Through Brain Microcircuitry

NeuronBank: Neuronal Circuit Online Data Repository

Synthetic Brain Cells and Graph Theory

The Connectome: Automated Collection of High Resolution Whole Mouse Brain Anatomy

Industrialized Intellect: Robot Scientists

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