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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Available now in 3-D: The world's most detailed brain map

Researchers use a special tool called a microtome to cut slices from a brain preserved in paraffin wax into tiny slivers 20-micrometers thick. The researchers cut the brain into over 7,400 such slices. Each highly folded slice was stained to detect cell bodies.
[Image courtesy of Amunts, Zilles, Evans et al.]

Your brain's microscopic nooks and crannies are now on display in 3-D, offering scientists a priceless tool in their quest to better understand how brain shape contributes to human behavior and health.

This achievement is the result of an international effort by scientists to create the first ultra-high resolution reference brain. Though neuroscience research has resulted in a number of such reference brains—tools that allow scientists to look at how brain form relates to chemical signaling or gene expression—no currently available brain atlas explores further than the macroscopic (or visible) level.

But scientists really need to be able to see microscopic components, like cellular circuits, if they want to understand the brain across all its levels of organization, from genes to thought to behavior.

Now, Katrin Amunts—Director of the Cecile and Oskar Vogt Institute for Brain Research at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany—has worked with research partners to build a more detailed brain atlas.

Using a special tool called a microtome, Amunts and colleagues carefully cut the wax-covered brain of a deceased 65-year-old female into over 7,400 slices. Each slice was just 20 micrometers thick. The researchers stained the super-thin slices with special dye so they could see all the cell bodies in each one, and then each slice's information was stored digitally, on a computer.

The researchers then very carefully re-aligned the brain slices, one above the next, and put them all back together. The result is a 3-D reference brain 50 times more detailed than anything available today.

The so-called "Big Brain," which provides unmatched insight into the brain's anatomy and organization, will allow researchers to study this organ at the cellular level. This will help them assign information about molecules and genes to features that were previously only visible under a microscope, ultimately paving the way for important insights into how processes like cognition, language, and emotions work. They'll also be better able to understand why these processes go wrong.

Key to advancing research in the neuroscience field, the Big Brain is freely available, and can thus be widely referenced.

Eventually, Amunts and colleagues hope to build a brain model at the resolution of 1 micrometer to capture even more details of single cells. Meanwhile, the current version will help scientists better understand certain diseases and could even help with drug development.