Modern medicine has made great progress in diagnosing and treating physical ailments, but it has rarely had the same success when it comes to disorders of the brain. The major problem is that the brain is such a complicated piece of machinery; its estimated 86 billion neurons make it the most complex structure known to science. Now, however, a groundbreaking 3-D reconstruction developed by teams from Canada and Germany may be about to change all that, by giving neuroscientists a chance to take a “street level” look at the way the brain works.
Researchers have recently completed a ten-year project – dubbed “Big Brain”- which involved slicing the brain of a deceased woman into 7404 sections, staining each individual section, and scanning the slices into a high-definition computer. The slices were then reassembled by the computer to create a 3-D model which reveals never-before-seen details and connections.
Each slice has a spatial resolution of about 20 microns – that’s half the width of a human hair – which improves on current reference brain models by a factor of 50 in each dimension.
Professor Katrin Amunts, a member of the German research team, says that the results are like using the street view of Google Earth, and that with the incredible resolution offered by this new model, “You can see details that are not visible before we had this 3-D reconstruction". Professor Paul Fletcher, a psychiatrist from Cambridge University who has had the chance to look at Big Brain, claims that the project will help immensely with his research into eating disorders, as well as many other neurological studies. “"We will be able to study the responses seen in people and map it on to an atlas that goes close to the individual layers of the brain's cortex, to the very cells themselves," he says.
The results of the Big Brain project are timely. With an aging population in many industrialized countries, neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, and schizophrenia are placing a severe cost and care burden on society. Adding to the problem is a growing incidence of depression, which makes an understanding of brain processes more important than ever.
Neuroscientists involved in this, and other, initiatives are hoping that their research will lead to new and effective methods of treating these disorders. Hundreds of millions of dollars are currently being directed towards programs which may result in better drugs and therapies, including the $30 million Connectome project, which seeks to understand “the neural pathways that underlie brain function and behaviour,” and President Obama’s $100 million BRAIN project to research the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s, autism, and other neurological disorders. In Europe, the EU has announced a one billion pound program to create a human brain from the ground up using computer technology.
In many ways, the brain represents a “final frontier” for medical researchers. It may be an incredibly complex machine, but thanks to initiatives like Big Brain, scientists are one major step closer to understanding how humanity thinks. One day, perhaps, the secrets of genius and madness will be unlocked, but for now, the possibility of developing effective treatments for some of the brain's most distressing disorders is cause enough for excitement.
Full details of the Big Brain project can be seen in the June 20 edition of Science magazine.