The BigBrain Atlas: Most Detailed Model of Human Brain Yet

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You probably have a pretty good idea of what your brain looks like: an oblong grayish-pinkish blob, covered in folds and grooves, divided into two nearly identical halves. I took a Neuroanatomy lab last fall, where I actually got to dissect a real brain from a cadaver, and it was one of the most interesting experiences of my entire life: I was essentially holding the last remaining piece of a person in my hands. The brain my group had was a bit bigger, and more covered in blood vessels than I had expected. After 6 sessions, our amateur dissecting skills had pretty much rendered the brain unrecognizable, but I learned more in those classes than I ever did from a Neuroanatomy textbook.

If you never get a chance to dissect a real human brain, don’t worry - a new 3D computer model of the brain was just developed, that is significantly more detailed than existing models. Funded by the European Union’s billion dollar Human Brain Project, the BigBrain Atlas was painstakingly constructed by thinly slicing a brain into 7,400 sections each thinner than the width of a hair, staining the slices to make it easier to differentiate the different kinds of cells and compounds, then scanning and digitizing everything with a high resolution microscopic camera. To make the brain easier to work with (one researcher described the brain slices as like “Saran Wrap”), it was encased in wax for months before being worked on. The whole process took over 1,000 hours, mostly consecutively, as breaks could disrupt the slicing process.

The researchers who developed the BigBrain Atlas have made it freely available to the public through a website, allowing everyone to become intimately acquainted with their most important organ (get your head out of the gutter!) in a way that was never before possible. I think the best part about this is (given the giant funding initiatives toward neuroscience research in Europe and the United States) that in a few years we’ll probably be hearing about a newer, even more detailed model of the brain that is a significant improvement over the BigBrain Atlas. It isn’t unreasonable to expect that we’ll learn more about our brains in the next decade than we did in the last 50 years, and models like this will be important tools in accomplishing that feat.

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