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Horizon: 10 Things You Need to Know...

...About the Future. Hannah Fry delves into the data we have today to give an evidence-based vision of tomorrow. 

About the programme

This episode of Horizon looks at the issues that will change the way we live our lives in the future. Rather than relying on the minds of science fiction writers, mathematician Hannah Fry delves into the data we have today to provide an evidence-based vision of tomorrow. With the help of the BBC's science experts - and a few surprise guests - Hannah investigates the questions the British public want answered about the future.

Find out more on the BBC programme pages . Explore all our related content below.

Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:

The Human Connectcome

Beyond mental illness: The potential of the connectome

Could mental illness be a thing of the past one day? John Rowe compares connectome with established techniques for examining the human brain. 

In Horizon: Ten Things You Need to Know about the Future Michael Mosley visited a research project to find out how mapping the human brain might affect autism, dementia and mental health diagnosis and treatment. In this article I compare the connectome with established techniques for examining the human brain. It is an important area of study.  New discoveries have the potential to improve diagnostics and targeted treatment. More accurate diagnoses and innovative preventative treatment approaches might enable us to move beyond treating mental illness and distress. Talking in terms of mental illness and distress could be a thing of the past. 

A huge amount of scientific inquiry has already enhanced our understanding of what the brain looks like and how it functions. Brain imaging techniques are used to draw inferences from what can be seen and measured as outlined below.

Computed Axial Tomography

Computed Axial Tomography (a CAT scan) uses X-Rays of an individual’s head taken from many different directions. It can be used to see injuries to the brain, usually as a cross- section of the brain. (Tomography is a term used to describe penetrative waves such as X-Ray or ultrasound. It is widely used in biology and radiology. Most people will recognise the term from foetal ultrasounds during pregnancy).

Event-related optical signaling

Event-related optical signaling (EROS) enables brains to be scanned using infrared light through optical fibres. By scanning the brain it can provide a direct measure of cellular activity, identifying where and when activity takes place

Magnetic resonance imaging

Magnetic resonance imaging (the MRI scan) employs magnetic fields and radio waves to produce high quality multidimensional images of the structure of the brain. It can provide different images to those identified by X-Ray or ultrasound

Positron emission tomography

Positron emission tomography (PET) produces two or three dimensional images of the distribution of chemicals labelled with radioactive ions which have been injected into the bloodstream. It tracks working areas of the brain (areas where more glucose is used) and thus areas where the brain is not working as it should, such as in dementia and strokes

Single-photon emission computed tomography

Single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) uses the injection of a SPECT agent, a radioactive tracer. It enables a snap shot of blood flow in the brain and is used to image epilepsy as well as dementia and other diseases.

The connectome is a map of neural connections in the brain. Unlike the tomographic imaging discussed above, the connectome can capture brain activity at the level of neural connections. A neuron is a nerve cell which connects with other neurons via electrical and chemical signals. There are billions of neural connections in the human brain, but collectively they can be considered as a single entity: the connectome. The connectome is like a wiring diagram of an electrical circuit which most electricians will be familiar. But it’s much more complex; infinitely more complex.      

Brain imaging techniques have wonderful capabilities, but most imaging techniques have a relatively low resolution compared to images from the connectome. The brain is intra- connected so that any function relies on a number of areas of the brain. It’s not definitively established that any given area of the brain is responsible for specific attributes like being able to count backwards from a hundred or to favour particular life style choices. However, being able to view brain function at the individual neural connection level will help identify that neuron’s specific functions at that site and time. The connectome might be the way that component features of specific attributes such as musicality or self-image can be identified.  

Importantly and perhaps reassuringly brain tomographic imaging and the connectome are far from being able to see our thoughts. They can, though, indicate areas of activity which is a key stage in identifying where things are going awry in the brain. In the context of mental illness and distress it has the potential to pinpoint relationships between neural activity and hallucinatory or delusional experiences.

Today most treatment approaches combine some kind of behavioural or cognitive intervention with medicinal treatment. Much of the focus has been on developing new medicinal products. Perhaps the connectome holds the key to supplanting medicinal products to treating mental illness and distress. And perhaps one day the connectome will allow us to move beyond talking in terms of mental illness and distress to new terms that more accurately reflect what is really going on in the brain. 

Meet the OU experts

Dr James Warren, Senior Lecturer in the School of Engineering and Innovation
Dr James WarrenSenior Lecturer - School of Engineering and Innovation, VIEW FULL PROFILE
Dr James Warren, Senior Lecturer in the School of Engineering and Innovation
Dr James WarrenSenior Lecturer - School of Engineering and Innovation,

James Warren is a senior lecturer in the School of Engineering and Innovation and an author on many modules in The Open University which contain transport studies, transport case studies or environmental units linked to mobility. All of his research is publicly available and usually deals with quantifying emissions for particular scenarios or modes of transport. His studies include emissions modelling, ground vehicle propulsion systems, futures thinking (scenario planning, especially for transport) – and frequently include regression models, estimation based on very limited data and growth models (e.g. economic growth). James hold 6 industrially patents in the broad area of automobile catalyst on various devices which reduce pollution – many of these systems are being used successfully on heavy duty trucks around the globe to this day. He is no stranger to invention and has the persistence to strive for a better product.

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