High-res 3-D model of brain will put flood of new discoveries into context
With resolution almost on scale of individual cells, 'BigBrain' will help put ever-rising flood of genetic and molecular findings into context
Scientists have created the highest resolution three-dimensional digital model yet made of a human brain, showing features as small as 20 micrometres across - thinner than a human hair and almost on the scale of individual cells.
At 50 times the resolution of any available anatomical atlas of the brain, the "BigBrain" model will give scientists their closest look yet at the structures that underlie aspects of the organ, ranging from cognition and language to ageing and disease.
Until now the highest resolution MRI brain scans have only been able to resolve features down to about a millimetre.
Researchers, led by Katrin Amunts, of Germany's Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, constructed their digital model based on the preserved brain of a 65-year-old woman that had been set in paraffin.
The brain was sliced into more than 7,400 sections, each no more than 20 micrometres thick.
The slices were stained to highlight the different types of cell present and then scanned into a computer, creating around a terabyte of data - equivalent to about 120 video DVDs.
The slices were then reconstructed into a whole 3-D digital brain.
The research was published on Thursday in the journal Science and the full data set for BigBrain project is to be made freely available at the CBRAIN Portal.
BigBrain, part of the European Human Brain Project, will help scientists put the ever-rising flood of genetic and molecular findings on the brain in context.
"For instance, when you are interested in a common neurodegenerative disorder, like Alzheimer's disease, you have the first ever brain model where you can look into details of the … brain region important for memory," said Karl Zilles, an author on the Science paper who is also based at the Düsseldorf university.
Using this reference model of the brain would allow teams of researchers around the world to compare their results and tease out differences in the brains of healthy and unwell people.
The 3-D brain is also expected to help in clinical settings. Amunts said that when, for example, electrodes were being inserted into the brains of patients with Parkinson's disease to help reduce tremors, surgeons could use the BigBrain atlas to position and move the thin wires with far greater precision.
For neuroscientists, BigBrain would act as a scaffold upon which further layers of information about the function of the living brain might be overlaid as discoveries were made. "I think we're in an era now of very large big science coming to the brain," said Alan Evans, a McGill University neurology professor and one of the project's leaders.
BigBrain comes in the wake of announcements across the world of projects to map the human brain in greater detail. The European Commission awarded €500 million (HK$5.13 billion) over 10 years to the Human Brain Project in January, which incorporates the BigBrain consortium.
The wider aims of the project are led by Henry Markram, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Lausanne, who wants to use supercomputers to create a digital model of a human brain.
In April, US President Barack Obama launched the US$100 million Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative, to map the human brain in action.
The idea of thin-slicing a brain to study its anatomy is not new. In fact, complete bodies of a man and a woman were sliced and photographed about 20 years ago to create an anatomy reference called the Visible Human Project.
For the new brain-mapping project, the researchers chose the woman's brain for no special reason other than it was basically healthy, said Amunts.
Additional reportng by Associated Press