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Connectome: How the Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are Hardcover – Feb 7 2012
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Wall Street Journal's 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2012
Amazon's Top 100 Editor's Picks for 2012
Publishers Weekly Top Ten in Science for Spring 2012
“The best lay book on brain science I’ve ever read.”
— Wall Street Journal by Daniel Levitin, Professor, McGill University; author of This Is Your Brain on Music and The World in Six Songs.
“This is complicated stuff, and it is a testament to Dr. Seung’s remarkable clarity of exposition that the reader is swept along with his enthusiasm, as he moves from the basics of neuroscience out to the farthest regions of the hypothetical, sketching out a spectacularly illustrated giant map of the universe of man.”
— New York Times
“[A] bracing, mind-expanding report from neuroscience’s razor edge. Accessible, witty, [e]minently logical and at times poetic, Connectome establishes Seung as an important new researcher, philosopher and popularizer of brain science. It puts him on par with cosmology’s Brian Greene and the late Carl Sagan.”
— Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Seung argues intelligently and powerfully that the self lies in the totality of the brain’s wiring.”
— Nature by Christof Koch, Professor, California Institute of Technology; Chief Scientific Officer, Allen Institute for Brain Science; author of Quest for Consciousness and Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist
“With the first-person flavour of James Watson’s Double Helix—an account of how DNA’s structure was discovered—Connectome gives a sense of the excitement on the cutting edge of neuroscience.”
— NewScientist by Terry Sejnowski, Professor and Director, Computational Neurobiology Lab, Salk Institute; Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Member, National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering USA.
“An elegant primer on what’s known about how the brain is organized and how it grows, wires its neurons, perceives its environment, modifies or repairs itself, and stores information. Seung is a clear, lively writer who chooses vivid examples.”
— Washington Post
“Sebastian Seung scales the heights of neuroscience and casts his brilliant eye around, describing the landscape of its past and boldly envisioning a future when we may understand our own brains and thus ourselves.”
—Kenneth Blum, Executive Director, Center for Brain Science, Harvard University
“Sebastian Seung can do it all. He’s widely recognized as a superb physicist, a whiz with computers, and a path-breaking neuroscientist. Connectome shows that he's also a terrific writer, as inspiring as he is clear and good humored.”
—Steven Strogatz, Cornell University, author of Sync: the Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order
“In Connectome, Sebastian Seung reminds us that the human brain has contemplated itself for centuries. This is an important book, full of refreshingly new science and engaging history, about the essential quest to understand ourselves.”
—Phillip A. Sharp, MIT, 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
“A landmark work, gorgeously written. No other researcher has traveled as deeply into the brain forest and emerged to share its secrets.”
—David Eagleman, author of Incognito and Sum
“Connectomics is emerging as a crucial and exhilarating field of study. Sebastian Seung takes you by the hand and shows you why. Connectome is a page turner—a book that should be read by anyone who lays claim to be thinking about the nature of life.”
—Michael Gazzaniga, University of California at Santa Barbara and author of Human and The Ethical Brain
About the Author
Sebastian Seung is Professor of Computational Neuroscience at MIT and an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He has made important advances in robotics, neuroscience, neuroeconomics, and statistical physics. His research has been published in leading scientific journals, and also featured in the New York Times , Technology Review , and the Economist .
Top Customer Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
What I particularly like about this book was the material was not at all the usual popular neuroscience stuff. This book covered new ground for me and I think will for most other readers. Seung spends a decent amount of time in the beginning explaining some basics about neurons and how the brain works, but it is when you get into the central ideas of the book that it gets really interesting.
One thing I really liked about the book was how the author explained the technologies and challenges required to actually create a connectome of even simple brains much less a human. According to Seung we don't have computers powerful enough or the tools to even analyze a cubic millimeter of a bird brain's connectome, much less a complete human brain a million times that size.
The whole book was compelling and informative and I can easily recommend it to others. One thing to keep in mind however, is that it is very futuristic in a sense. Seung's ideas are very plausible to me but still unproven and speculative. The technology to validate them is not going to be available for many years.
Prior to reading "Connectome," I had never heard the term, originally coined by Olaf Sporns and his colleagues in a 2005 paper. "A connectome is the totality of connections between the neurons in a nervous system. ... It is all of the connections." (xiii) "You may have heard of the $30 million Human Connectome Project, which was announced in 2010 by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Most people don't realize that this project is only about regional connectomes, and has nothing to do with neuronal connectomes." (181) While Dr. Seung concedes that "in the immediate future, a regional connectome seems like the most useful kind for psychologists and neurologists" he is forward thinking to a day that all 100 billion neurons in the human brain are named, given a characteristic location and shape and are diagrammed. "To find connectomes, we will have to create machines that produce clear images of neurons and synapses over a large field of view." (140)
This is an ambitious goal. "We still don't know how many types [of neurons] there are, though we know the number is large. The brain is more like a tropical rainforest, which contains hundreds of species, than a coniferous forest with perhaps a single species of pine tree. One expert has estimated that there are thousands of neuron types in the cortex alone." (176) The connectome of a small roundworm (C. elegans) took seven years to "map" even though it has only 300 neurons scattered throughout its body. (xi) Seung imagines the human connectome could be completed by the end of this century thanks to rapid advances in technology for imaging the brain and slicing brain tissue, and high-speed computers to crunch the data.
This is all very fascinating and futuristic, but aside from connectome, this book is full of interesting information about intelligence, the effect of drugs on the brain, how the brain repairs itself after injury or stroke, as well as history and philosophy. For instance:
"Other animal species, such as lizards, are able to regenerate large parts of their nervous systems after injury. And human children regenerate better than adults do. In the 1970s, when physicians realized that children's fingertips regenerate like lizards' tails, they stopped attempting to reattach severed fingertips through surgery; now, they simply let the fingertips grow back. Hidden powers of regeneration might lie dormant in adults, and the new field of regenerative medicine seeks to awaken them." (221)
"Neurons continue to grow branches well after birth. This process is called the "wiring" of the brain, since axons and dendrites resemble wires. Axons have to grow the most, since they are much longer than dendrites. Imagine the tiny growing tip of an axon, known as a "growth cone" for its roughly conical shape. If a growth cone were blown up to human size, its travels would take it to the other side of a city. How is the growth cone able to navigate such long distances? Many neuroscientists study this phenomenon, and they've found that the growth cone acts like a dog sniffing its way home. The surfaces of neurons are coated with special guidance molecules that act like scents on the ground, and the interstitial spaces between neurons contain drifting guidance molecules that act like scents in the air. Growth cones are equipped with molecular sensors and can "smell" the guidance molecules to find their destination. The production of guidance molecules and sensors for these molecules is under genetic control. That's how genes guide the wiring of the brain." (106)
For some inexplicable reason, I found the following most interesting:
"The need for inhibition might be the chief reason why the brain relies so heavily on synapses that transmit chemical signals. There is actually another kind of synapse, one that directly transmits electrical signals without using neurotransmitter. Such electrical synapses work more quickly, since they eliminate time-consuming steps of converting signals from electrical to chemical and then back to electrical, but there are no inhibitory electrical synapses, only excitatory ones. Perhaps because of this and other limitations, electrical synapses are much less common than chemical ones." (56)
Any reader interested in preserving his or her brain in hopes of achieving immortality will want to read the chapter, "To Freeze or to Pickle?" Cryobiology is examined scientifically as well as from ethical and philosophical points of view.
But already, with the mapping and study of the 300 neurons in the C.elegans roundworm and ongoing development in imaging technology (such as the automated ultramicrotome), we are making strides toward understanding the structure and function of diverse neurons, and how their interactive network operates.
Author Seung is a professor of neuroscience at MIT, and a leading researcher on neural networks and the still-theoretical connectome. The term connectome, first coined in 2005, refers to the totality of connections between neurons. The field of neuroscience involves learning how neurons are strengthened, weakened, weighted and eliminated and how they connect and reconnect, rewire, and regenerate.
The first half of his book begins with chapters about: 1) the structure and role of neurons; 2) connectomes and their interconnectivity; 3) how memories are impressed and stored; 4) and genes. The next sections cover the development of imaging technologies and the lifelong task of reading and interpreting the voluminous data acquired.
Unfortunately, at this point, Seung comes across less as a scientist and more as a science fiction writer as he resorts to speculation about cryonics (brain and body preservation), uploading brains into computers, and immortality. The book would be much more substantial if he omitted the last few chapters.
Seung, however, is a talented writer with the unique ability to impart scientific theory in understandable language. Obviously possessing a highly associative brain himself, he is skilled at explaining fundamentals of neuroscience through the frequent use of everyday analogies.
He compares the process of dendrites spiking to a weighted voting system influenced by favoritism. All votes must be in before dendrites know they can spike, he tells us, further explaining that some votes count more than others -some neurons and their synapses transport more important signals than others do, and therefore have greater impact.
"If the axons and dendrites in the gray matter are like local streets, the axons of the white matter are like superhighways of the brain," he writes.
In another chapter, he briefly takes us on a "fantastic voyage". "Perhaps you are a protein molecule sitting on a molecular motor car running on a molecular track. You are being transported on the long journey from your birthplace, the cell body, to your destination, the outer reaches of the axon... To find an entire connectome, though, you'd have to explore every passage in the brain's labyrinth."
I was especially pleased that he compared RAM and hard drive memory to short-term and long-term memory in the brain - a comparison I make in computer skills classes I teach.
But I wish that Seung introduced us to the brain as a whole before zeroing in on neurons, and that he provided a detailed, labeled map of the parts of the brain. He included a lot of rough illustrations and diagrams, but few quality photos.
I thought that his discussion of factors contributing to memory was incomplete - he didn't even mention the emotional intensity of a learning experience, multi-sensory involvement, and mindful attention and intention, all factors I found to be critical during graduate training in education and psychology, as well as my personal brain fitness "workouts".
My primary criticism of the book, however, is that Seung doesn't differentiate enough between proven facts, generally accepted theories, his own personal theories, and pure speculation.
Nevertheless, his often chatty and informal yet highly informative writing style is enjoyable. His numerous and sometimes humorous analogies help us envision neural activity, understand the intricacies of the connectome, and appreciate the immense accomplishments and challenges of neuroscience. I rate CONNECTOME 4 stars.
The first section deals with the history of brain science, from eugenics to what Seung calls our current "neo-eugenics". Eugenics was the late 19th and early 20th century "science" that measured people's abilities by the size and shape of their brain. Particularly, different areas of the brain were believed to have different functions; the larger your brain was in a certain area, the more brain power you were said to have in the skill that area was said to control. While modern science has learned that much of eugenics was wrong (from what eugenicists said was each brain section's domain, to overestimating how much brain size relates brain function), Seung is not satisfied that our modern neuroscience has gotten completely over eugenics. Yes, we know that each brain has areas and each area has different functions. And we know that brain size (and brain area size) LOOSELY correlates to brain function. But we are missing what seems like a big piece of the puzzle. And that piece is studying not only brain areas and their size, but also what the connectome looks like in those areas.
The next several sections are devoted to discussing how the brain's connectome forms, and how much (or how little) genes seem to play in directing it. The conventional view is that neural connections form when something is learned, and connections grow stronger or weaker based on how much those connections are used. Seung's hypothesis is a bit different: he believes that connections more likely form randomly, and the ones that aren't used then disappear (while the ones that are used grow stronger). Seung also describes some of the computer technology that could be used to look more closely at the connectome in much the same way as we've used computer technology to decipher the human genome. (While Seung is a pretty good writer, this particular chapter might benefit from an edit, as I waded through about ten pages recounting the history of how technology has enhanced science to get to Seung's point).
Part IV focuses on Seung's arguments about how examining the connectome may offer good insight into why people become how they become. What causes autism, why there is variance in populations in IQ, why different people are good at different things, etc. Much of the contemporary literature chalks a good amount of these answers to genetics and looks for correlations between genetic markers and specific traits. Seung doesn't deny the fruitfulness of this approach, but he is curious about whether there are neural connections that correlate with particular behavioral traits. If so, it is quite possible that we can figure out what induces neural connections to form, and whether or not the brain can alter its connectome. Unlike genomics, which has a very deterministic feel - you can't change your genome, after all - connectomics may offers us not only a richer understanding of our brains, but maybe learn that some of our traits are more plastic as research now suggests.
The final section is a very speculative section on whether the future might see us able to preserve brains for future study, etc.
While I did learn quite a bit from this book, and while Seung is a pretty decent popular writer, I came away a little less than impressed. First, I am not sure I buy Seung's depiction of much modern neuroscience as unduly neo-eugenic. Now, I am a lay reader in neurscience, but I seriously doubt whether contemporary neurscientists would really DENY that the connectome likely contributes a great deal to human development. I suspect - again, as a layreader - that Seung's plea for a new science of connectomics is probably not that different from where others in the field want to go.
Secondly, it seems like a lot of Seung's argument - and he admits this, to his credit - is speculative. Not that there is anything at all wrong with hypothesizing, but if convincing people to test (or find out how to test) new hypotheses about the brain is the goal, then the lay public is probably the last audience one should be aiming for.
So, while the book was quite interesting and Seung does reasonably well at explaining very abstract neuroscience to a lay audience, he might have waited a few years to write this book. That way, rather than writing a book largely consisting of hypotheses (which as yet often can't be substantiated or falsified), he might have been able to write a more concrete book detailing what actually HAS been and IS being found out about the brain.
I felt he could have made his points in 20 pages; I took only a half-page of notes on an almost 300 page book. I expected a more academic treatment, but even though he includes a lengthy bibliography, he makes no actual citations, so i can't easily reference the original sources. By background, Professor Seung is a theoretical physicist, but in "Connectome" he seems to be a non-practicing theoretical neuroscientist. Why should we care.