Saturday, June 2, 2012

Project attempts to map the entire brain circuitry

Our brain is an incredibly complex computer with billions of wires and billions of 'calculating units', called neurons. Each individual brain cell, or neuron, can be connected to countless of others by special wires, creating complex patterns and communication pathways. This overwhelming circuitry is hard to grasp and understand, which is why neurologists have more or less studied it by assessing the function of whole brain areas instead of looking at it cell by cell: it is just too complex. In an attempt to learn more about the wiring of the brain, neurologists from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory are trying to map the whole brain by taking highly detailed pictures of all the cells and wires. This should help us to study the brain.

The scientists recently released the first 500 terabytes of data to the public, comprising of individual pictures of brain sections just 20 microns in width. That is just 0,002 centimetres, while the picture itself consists of one billion pixels, which makes for very highly detailed imagery. Because every picture consists of only a small part of the brain and is highly detailed, it is possible to zoom in and view individual neurons and their connections. Photos are taken using light microscopy and an automated process that processes individual slices of brain. Sadly, tissue was taken from mice, not humans, presumably because it is smaller and easier to get.

By zooming in and out, it is possible to 'travel' through the brain by using the pictures and show highly detailed imagery when needed. Because the scientists integrated their images with other sources of data, neuroscientists around the world can learn what goes on inside the brain. It makes for an interactive tool that allows for browsing the brain, and is accessible on a special website for everyone.

Even though the data is already accessible for scientists, the project is not done yet. It will take many more pictures to complete imaging the entire brain. It is worthwhile to note that making photos of an entire human brain will generate even more data. The scientists hope to release new images every month. Ultimately, these attempts should help scientists learn more about how brain structure affects function, and the dynamics of communication inside our head.
The interface on the brain website. Users can zoom in, out or adjust the view. This slice is part of the so-called motor areas in the brain, which are responsible for movement.

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