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Watching the brain in action

Just imagine being able to surf through the brain and its 86 billion neurons - well now you can. Scientists have developed the first high-definition 3D model of a complete human brain - it is called Big Brain. Researchers from Canada and Germany have constructed the 3D digital model based upon the preserved brain of a 65-year-old woman that had been preserved in wax. It was sliced into ultra-thin sections. The scientists then used modern brain imaging technologies to analyse each individual piece after which the sections were put back together into the highest possible resolution 3D digital model.

Katrin Amunts, the project leader at the Forschungszentrum in Jülich, said: “The Big Brain is a three-dimensional atlas of the human brain with microscopic resolution. We had to make ​​more than 7,500 histological sections of a human brain, which then were reconstructed three-dimensionally. Which means that finally we have a mass which we can study. Actually it works just the way we do with Google Earth, where we can also zoom in to specific cities, look at certain roads. The brain atlas is quite similar.”

The research was recently published in the journal Science and can be accessed freely online.

At 50 times the resolution of any available anatomical atlas of the organ, the project will give scientists the most sophisticated look at the structures that underlie aspects of the brain, ranging from cognition and language to ageing and disease.

Until now the highest resolution MRI scans have only been able to resolve features down to about one millimetre.

“We can very precisely measure, for example, the surface and the cortical thickness. These are parameters that are important for neurodegenerative diseases. Or we can get information about the distribution of cells in certain regions. There are also very, very small lesions in the brain, where it is very important not only to know what it looks like inside the core of the lesion, but also on the so-called penumbra - areas of the brain that were damaged but not yet dead. In all those cases such detailed information is important, this could also apply to stroke patients,” Katrin Amunts continued.

The Big Brain model, created by the Montreal Neurological Institute and the Centre for Research in Jülich provides considerable neuroanatomical insight into the human brain, thereby allowing the extraction of microscopic data for modeling and simulation.

For neuroscientists, Big Brain will act as a framework upon which further layers of information about the function of the living brain can be added as new discoveries are made.

Katrin Amunts concluded: “We hope that this human brain model will become a reference, which means that other data obtained about the function of the brain - for example, the distribution of receptors or gene expression - could be integrated into this brain model. Secondly, we hope to be able to produce analyses based on this brain; for example, how big is the cell density in different brain regions. These parameters are also used to ultimately allow modeling and simulation of the brain, and that’s something, for example, what we’re also planning within the Human Brain Project.”

Big Brain was announced alongside a number of similar research areas around the world.

The European Human Brain Project is a one billion euro fund aimed at simulating the brain using high-performance supercomputers to better understand how it functions, Big Brain is part of that.

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