The National Institutes of Health awarded $40 million in grants as part of an initiative to develop a high-resolution map of the human brain’s connections, forming the basis of the Human Connectome Project, a project that has the potential to dramatically improve our understanding of the mind and mental disorders.

These initial grants will support two collaborations. In one, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University and the University of California, Los Angeles, will work to improve MRI technology so that it can produce images that are four to eight times higher in resolution than current models. This increased imaging power will allow researchers to see connection details that are currently invisible, such as the individual orientations of axons and dendrites — parts of the neuron that send and receive electrical signals — that crisscross at a single point.

That enhanced technology will help the second collaboration, made up of researchers from Washington University, St. Louis, and the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Those researchers will use the high-powered MRI scanners to map the neuronal connections of 1,200 healthy adults, including pairs of twins and other siblings. By looking at the behavioral and genetic data from families, researchers hope to pinpoint the specific brain circuits responsible for various physiological and cognitive traits.

Once data are collected, they will be available on the Web for other researchers to analyze, similar to the Human Genome Project’s publically available GenBank database.

—M. Price