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Digital Atlas is the ‘Google Earth of the Brain’

Digitized view of the brain
Forschungszentrum Juelich/Katrin Amunts

In 2013, the 10-year-long Human Brain Project kicked off with the efforts of about 500 scientists at over 100 universities, teaching hospitals, and research centers across Europe. Now, as part of that initiative, the Julich-Brain has been completed, snagging the honor of being the world’s most comprehensive digital map of the brain.

The Julich-Brain, named because it was developed at the Jülich Research Center in Germany, is the result of analyzing 24,000 super-thin slices of brains taken from 10 deceased donors. These slices were digitized down to the cellular level and turned into a 3D model with the hope of furthering our understanding of the complicated organic computers that act as the command-and-control centers for much of life on Earth.

Google Earth of the Brain

“On the one hand, the digital brain atlas will help to interpret the results of neuroimaging studies, for example of patients, more accurately,” says Katrin Amunts, Director at the German Research Center Juelich and Professor at the University of Duesseldorf. “On the other hand, it is becoming the basis for a kind of ‘Google Earth’ of the brain—because the cellular level is the best interface for linking data about very different facets of the brain.”

One of the challenges of the project was determining where one brain region ended, and another began. But after more than 25 years, scientists and mathematicians were able to map the organ, which, if unfurled, would stretch for more than a mile. They did so by drawing borders in areas of the brain where the architecture of nerve cells changed. To compensate for variations in brain regions between different individuals, the Jullich-Brain arranges its data in probability maps that describe more than 250 structurally distinct areas. 

The new brain atlas is part of the EBRAINS initiative, which was formed beneath the Human Brain Project umbrella. In developing their model, the Julich-Brain team employed the FENIX supercomputing network used by EBRAINS. Part of the hope of the project is to link form with function in terms of how the brain operates. According to the researchers, the atlas has already begun aggregating genetics data to shed more light on how the brain—and the diseases that affect it—work.

“EBRAINS also enables us to use the maps for simulations or to apply artificial intelligence to explore the division of labor between brain areas, said Amunts. “It is exciting to see how far the combination of brain research and digital technologies has progressed. Many of these developments converge in the Julich-Brain-Atlas and on EBRAINS. They help us—and more and more researchers worldwide—to better understand the complex organization of the brain and to jointly uncover how things are connected.”

News about the Julich-Brain’s completion has been featured in the journal, Science. You can also try the atlas out for yourself, although it might not impress those without medical training.