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BigBrain: the best 3D map of the human brain ever

Posting in Science

An international team of researchers spent the last 10 years studying 7,400 thinly sliced sections of a 65-year-old woman’s brain. Last week, they released BigBrain, the first ultrahigh-resolution, 3D reference brain.

This new brain atlas is 50 times more detailed than anything available today. To date, no brain atlas has ever probed further than what’s visible (the macroscopic). BigBrain incorporates microscopic components that could help us better understand brain form and function: from genes and cognition to emotions, language, and behavior.

  1. First, Katrin Amunts of Research Centre Jülich in Germany and colleagues preserved the brain and embedded it in wax for months.
  2. Using a knife called a microtome, they cut the brain into 7,400 histological sections at 20-micrometer thickness -- a fraction the width of a single hair -- onto a conveyer belt like a deli slicer.
  3. Each section was mounted on a microscope slide, stained to make neurons visible, then digitized. Imaging the sections by microscope took 1,000 hours and generated 1 trillion bytes of data.
  4. The digitalized sections were then aligned and reconstructed. (Imagine reconstructing thousands of ripped and distorted Saran Wrap bits.)

BigBrain is part of the European Human Brain Project, a €1 billion effort to make a computer model of brain function in the next decade.

And BigBrain is freely available through CBRAIN! So what can we do with it?

"The whole point of such a modeling project is that you can then start to simulate what the brain does in normal development in children or in degeneration," says co-author Alan Evans from McGill. "If you wanted to look to Alzheimer’s Disease, you can examine how that brain might perform computationally in a computational model if you remove certain key structures or key connections."

  • The dataset could help accurately guide neurosurgeries such as deep brain stimulation, which uses a pacemaker to emit electric signals that quell seizures.
  • With similar maps, it’ll be possible to study natural variability in structure and look for abnormalities linked to specific neurological diseases. A second brain -- from a male or a younger person -- should go faster now that this group has trail-blazed its method.

The work was published in Science last week.

[AAAS via ScienceNOW, Nature]

Images: Amunts, Zilles, Evans et al.

— By on June 25, 2013, 3:56 PM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure