The 'Google Earth' of 3D Brain Maps is Here

Meet "Big Brain," the first high-res, 3D digital model of the human brain.

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Meet "Big Brain," the first high-res, 3D digital model of the human brain. It's the result of a huge, 10-year project built from individual scans of 7,400 slices of a single human brain. The project will help scientists learn more about our minds.

The "Big Brain" project is the result of an international team of researchers from Germany and Canada. MIT Technology Review has a great piece up on the project, which goes into just how much work it takes to create a 3D image this detailed:

Alan Evans, a professor at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and senior author of a paper that reports the results in the journal Science, says his team then took on “the technical challenge of trying to stitch together 7,500 sheets of Saran wrap” into a three-dimensional object using digital image processing. Many slices had small rips, tears, and distortions, so the team manually edited the images to fix major signs of damage and then used an automated program for minor fixes. Guided by previously taken MRI images and relationships between neighboring sections, they then aligned the sections to create a continuous 3-D object representing about a terabyte of data.

An overview video from the research team behind the project gives a good view of just how close this baby can get. At the highest zoom, the map can't show individual cells. But it's detailed enough to learn about the different layers of cells in the brain. A typical MRI scan has a maximum resolution of about a millimeter. By comparison, Big Brain zooms in to 20 micrometers, MIT explains.

Prof Katrin Amunts from the Julich Research Centre has called it "like using Google Earth. You can see details that are not visible before we had this 3D reconstruction." The map is free to use for scientists across the globe. The team published their model in Science.

There are a number of "brain mapping" projects in the works right now, including one announced by President Obama earlier this year aimed at finding cures to brain disorders like Alzheimer's. And that duplication of effort is a good thing: we'll need as many maps like these as we can get. The "BigBrain" model shows just one single, healthy adult brain from a recently deceased donor. But even on its own, researchers now have an unprecedented look at what our brain is made of.

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