Body + Brain

27
Dec

Significant Science of 2013: Brain Mapping Gets a Big Boost

One terabyte of data. That’s what it took for scientists to make a comprehensive 3D map of the post-mortem human brain.

That, plus ten years of research, 7,000 slices of brain tissue from a healthy 65-year-old woman, and 1,000 hours of digitization. Sound difficult? For neuroscientists, this is only the beginning of a long journey that hopes to map the cogs and gears of the mind.

The project—dubbed BigBrain—was part of the European Human Brain Project, a joint effort by Canadian and German neuroscientists. While it bears no relation to President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, BigBrain is certainly the kind of work that could propel the audacious federal project forward. For one, scientists can use this generic model in order to see how a normal brain compares with ones afflicted by neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. BigBrain also captured the brain in incredible detail, revealing structures once invisible to even the most advanced technologies.

MGH_HCP_Wedeen_Lg-th
Scientists hope to use BigBrain along with other data to help map connections between different regions of the brain.

Back in June, this is how NOVA Next contributor Teal Burrell described the significance of BigBrain:

Prior to this study, MRI provided the most detailed 3D peek into a human brain. If you think of the brain as a map of a country, the resolution of MRI—about 1 millimeter—would make towns visible, but nothing smaller than that would be. BigBrain, on the other hand, “does 50 times better in each dimension than the typical 1-millimeter resolution of MRI,” says Katrin Amunts, a neuroscientist at the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine in Jülich, Germany, and lead author of the paper. Specifically, BigBrain’s 20-micron resolution is fine enough to pick out individuals of certain types of cells, but not all; the smallest neurons in the brain are only about 10 microns across. Still, if this were a map, the level of detail provided by BigBrain greatly exceeds MRI, allowing us to see not just towns, but the houses within them.

What’s still missing from BigBrain are the connections between neurons—the techniques used for this project weren’t suitable for developing a connectome. But it can help, serving as a scaffold over which connectivity data can be overlaid.

It’s likely, too, that BigBrain will help contribute to discoveries made in the BRAIN Initiative. Like the Human Genome Project, the BRAIN Initiative will stand on the shoulders of smaller projects. It will be a while before BRAIN ramps up—President Obama requested funds starting in 2014—but in the meantime, BigBrain is certain to give neuroscientists a more intimate picture of the human mind.

BigBrain animation
Navigating through the right hemisphere of BigBrain. Explore the brain using other types of imagery, using NOVA’s "Mapping the Brain" interactive.