A research team has created the world's first high-resolution 3D digital model of the human brain. The model, which has been named 'Big Brain' and shows the brain's anatomy in microscopic detail, will be made available for free to neuroscientists as an important research resource and a reference point for future studies.
In order to create the digital brain model, the research team had to slice 7400 sections from the brain of a deceased sixty-five year old woman using a tool called a microtome. Each of these sections is half the thickness of a single human hair, and are all individually stained to bring out their anatomic detail and then scanned into a computer. The scanned slices were then reassembled digitally, resulting in a three-dimensional, high definition digital creation which has been likened to Google Earth in its capacity for zooming in, allowing neuroscientists to study miniscule areas of the brain in microscopic detail.
Until Big Brain, brain scans have generally been made using MRI or PET technology. These techniques, however, can only capture structures as small as a millimetre, and to understand complex diseases such as Alzheimer's or epilepsy, a level of detail that shows individual groups of cells is necessary. Big Brain reveals structures as small as twenty microns, which is fifty times smaller than those created using the best MRI technology available today.This remarkable project took ten years to complete and has captured some eighty billion neurons in all.
The model, which has been published in the journal Science, has been praised by neuroscientists worldwide for its achievements and its painstaking level of detail that permits unprecedented access to the brain's intricate workings. Big Brain is seen by scientists as going one step better than technology that has existed before because it enables them to see details at the level at which brain computations take place.
The Big Brain project is part of a larger European effort known as the European Human Brain Project, which parallels similar efforts in America. Big Brain can be seen as an important step in the field of neuroscience, and comes at a similar time to plenty more news of financial investments in the study of the human brain. For example, researchers in the United States have recently begun a £24 million Human Connectome Project which, like Big Brain, involves immensely detailed brain scans to show the connections between areas of the brain. In addition to this, only last month President Obama announced a £64 million initiative to map the human brain as a means of finding cures for brain disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.