By Kevin Pollard
July 10, 2013 | A decade-long project has produced a digital brain with 125,000 times the resolution of previous models. The work was published last month in Science and could offer new ways for brain research is conducted, tracked, and shared.
A team consisting of researchers from the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine in Jülich, Germany and the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University physically cut a 65-year-old female brain into 7,404 pieces with a fine tissue-cutting tool called a microtome. They then used modern brain imaging technologies to analyze each individual piece and computationally put it back together into the final product, dubbed BigBrain.
Alan Evans, Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery at the Montreal Neurological Institute and co-author of the BigBrain paper, was in charge of putting the digital pieces of the brain back together to create BigBrain as a whole entity.
The model can be used to map brain activity with detail never before seen. For example, Evans envisions being able to compare treatment effects on Alzheimer’s disease patients for the private pharmaceutical industry.
“I have a huge volume [of data] where I make the same measurement across all locations, producing a statistical map of the difference between drugged and no drug. There are no subjective analyses here…. You produce a three-dimensional statistical map of the difference between controls, placebos, and drugged. That changes the game of how you do large-scale clinical trial data.”
Such clinical trials are still in the future, though. For one thing, BigBrain was made from a single female cadaver with no known mental health issues, Evans explained. Future research will examine a more varied collection of brain samples, but the procedure is painstakingly difficult and time-consuming.
Research on the Brain
BigBrain is one of several recent brain research initiatives worldwide. The European Human Brain Project, a 1-billion-Euro fund aimed at simulating the brain using high-performance supercomputers. President Obama also recently announced a $100 million investment into his BRAIN—Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies—Initiative.
Evans oversees the Canadian effort, CBRAIN, a project that strives to “develop a Canada-wide platform for distributed processing, analysis, exchange and visualization of brain imaging data.” He believes that BigBrain is a starting point for many other studies under the European Human Brain Project. Brain research networks like CBRAIN can upload data from various studies into specific regions of the brain, changing the way research is shared.
Evans is fascinated with the progress in the field and finds it hard to predict how far the technology will go. He says, “Computing infrastructure is getting more sophisticated every year, and they are starting to do things that you could only dream about 10 to 20 years ago.”