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The most high-res 3D map of the human brain

Scientists have created the world's first 3D digital reconstruction of the human brain that shows anatomy on the microscopic level.

(Credit: Amunts, Zilles, Evans, et al.)

Scientists have created the world's first 3D digital reconstruction of the human brain that shows anatomy on the microscopic level.

When it comes to the human brain, there's a lot we can learn through digital imaging. Recently, we've seen scientists find a way to map neurons more effectively, use a Kinect sensor to create a digital model of a brain and even an app that lets iPad users get up close and personal with Einstein's mighty mind.

Enter BigBrain: the most ambitious digital reconstruction of the human brain to date. Created by a team of researchers from Germany and Canada, it claims to be the highest-level digital image of a human brain ever created.

To create the image, the team took the brain of a 65-year-old woman embedded in paraffin wax to help it keep it shape and used a large-scale slicing tool called a microtome to cut it into more than 7400 20-micrometer thick slices. These were then mounted on slides and stained to make the cell structures visible. Finally, they were digitised using a flatbed scanner so that the researchers could construct the 3D model. All up, the data collection process took around 1000 hours.

The resulting 3D map shows at a spatial resolution of 20 microns the finest details of the human brain's microstructure — much more than the typical 1-millimetre sections obtained by MRI scans. Currently, no brain atlas probes farther than the visible level. BigBrain is 50 times more detailed.

The map, which is to be made freely available under the public domain to the broader scientific community, will help advance the field of neuroscience, the researchers said. Dr Katrin Amunts from the Research Centre Jülich and director of the Cecile and Oskar Vogt Institute for Brain Research at the Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf in Germany said that BigBrain "redefines traditional maps from the beginning of the 20th century. The famous cytoarchitectural atlases of the early 1900's were simplified drawings of a brain and were based on pure visual analysis of cellular organisation patterns".

Next, the team plans to repeat the process with a variety of sample brains so that it can examine the differences between them. "We will also integrate this dataset with high-resolution maps of white matter connectivity in post-mortem brains. This will allow us to explore the relationship between cortical microanatomy and fibre connectivity," Dr Amunts said.

Public access to the resource will be available through the CBRAIN portal, with free registration.