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3-D Cellular-Level Brain Atlas and Database Developed

Microtome producing 20-micron thick slices of brain

Microtome producing 20-micron thick slices of brain (Katrin Amunts, Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine)

Neuroscientists at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine in Jülich, Germany, with colleagues from other institutes in Germany, developed a three-dimensional atlas of the brain, providing ultra-high resolution and the ability to zoom into different parts of the brain down to the cellular level. The team led by Alan Evans of McGill and Katrin Amunts of Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine published their findings in this week’s issue of the journal Science (paid subscription required).

The goal of the BigBrain project is to integrate different types of data about the brain into a unified understanding of its workings. The resulting database aims to accumulate visual, molecular, genetic, and cellular data in a reference model to make possible investigations at a highly detailed level, zooming in on specific regions of the brain, the same way geographic information systems allow the retrieval of detailed street-view images and data about specific points on a map.

The researchers used a lab device called a microtome to cut 7,404 slices of a paraffin-wrapped human brain, each slice with a thickness of about 20 microns (1 micron = 1 millionth of a meter). Each brain slice was then stained to detect cell bodies and digitized, with each slice then carefully aligned and reconstructed.

The result is a database with a volume of 1 terabyte — 1,000 gigabytes —  some 125,000 times larger than current magnetic resonance images (MRIs), and 50 times more detailed than anything available today. The database enables researchers to view areas of the brain at the same 20 micron resolution of each original brain slice. As important, it provides a vehicle for capturing molecular, gene expression, electrophysical, and pharmacological data associated with individual points in the brain anatomy.

In addition to providing a wealth of data for basic research, BigBrain is expected to help help clinicians evaluate lower resolution MRI and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans, and enable greater computational modeling of brain functions. Developers of medical devices, such as deep brain stimulators are also expected to benefit from more accurate targeting of the devices to specific nerve cells for treating epilepsy and other neurological disorders.

The BigBrain database is available free of charge with registration. The team eventually hope to create even more levels of detail, down to one micron, to capture the form and structure of individual cells.

The following video shows images assembled from the database representing various parts of the brain.

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2 comments to 3-D Cellular-Level Brain Atlas and Database Developed

  • Richard Fitz

    This brief article is so much more useful in understanding the potential of current brain research than the claptrap about “Mind is not brain” published by the NYT (David Brooks) and Forbes (Alice Walton)! In Forbes and Walton we witness the creation of a fairly crude conservative political “position” on a scientific development that is primarily scientific at this point. No real exploration of the meaning, the questions raised by the issue or its consequences. The earth is flat, Period.

  • Thanks Dick for the comment and your readership of Science Business. Efforts to contextualize or denigrate neuroscience seem similar to the opposition to stem cell research, which challenges core spiritual beliefs. One often finds these so-called ethics issues are really a last attempt to maintain control over their dogma.