Man has always been intrigued with his surrounding and has experimented and devised theories to understand it better. With centuries of efforts, he has conquered many fronts but has failed to completely understand how his own brain works. A huge break-through in this endeavour came in the year 2013 with the release of the BigBrain Project that cost him almost a decade’s hard work, generating a terabyte of data about the human brain!
What is the BigBrain Project?
Researchers in Canada and Europe, under the leadership of Dr. Katrin Amunts, Dr. Karl Zilles, and Dr. Alan Evans, created a 3D ‘atlas’ of the brain that is now accessible to all. Now, what was important to this project, is the fact that this ‘atlas’ not only gives striking details of the human brain, bringing us a step closer to understanding behaviour-brain correspondence but will also make it possible to ‘see’ what actually happens in various diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
What is so enthralling about this 3D atlas?
With a lump-sum spent, this atlas is not an ordinary one. For this project, researchers used a donated brain of a healthy 65-year-old woman and cut it into 7400 histological sections. Each slice cut was as ‘thick’ as 20 micrometres (which is thinner than a human hair). These were then scanned using a flatbed scanner, and ruptures caused by the slicing were removed. The scanning process took about 1000 hours. Then, a 3D image was reconstructed, creating a cell-by-cell computer image of the human brain.
How will this data help us?
We are aware of the complexity of the human brain, and also how little we know about it. The BigBrain was aimed to create a stimulant that would give information of how a normal brain develops, but also how it degenerates in diseases like Alzheimer’s or to what extent it is affected in case of paralysis.
The BigBrain gives great anatomical detail and opens room for discussion and development as this 3D model can be used as a reference.
The BigBrain is definitely not the ultimate step in understanding the human brain but is definitely one that will change the course of research. It will help in developing better medical procedures, and will also help a great deal in understanding how our cognitive skills, language, and even emotions work.
ONE Brain Image for 7 Billion People! Really?
We all possess that 1% uniqueness, and that makes a huge difference. A single brain post mortem cannot give us a great insight into brain activity nor can it account for the slight variances in brain structures. The BigBrain has to be thought as a base onto which data collected from various other studies can be put into context.
Quantitative Electroencephalography, or in simple terms, Brain Mapping.
Brain Mapping attempts to relate brain structure to it functions, or what parts give us certain abilities. In this process, 21 electrodes are attached to the scalp using small amounts of conductive paste. (Do not worry; the paste can be washed easily). Small tasks are performed by the patient with his eyes opened and closed. After about 90mins, the data collected is ready for analysis. The data collected is related to that collected from a similar age group.
How does Brain Mapping help?
Brain Mapping helps in studying how environmental changes affect the brain structure and also helps in examining the changes in case of a mental illness like autism, depression, hyperactivity etc. Any kind of abnormality can be easily detected, and medical procedures can be put to use accordingly.
Brain Mapping techniques bring to light the importance of functional connections between the various regions of the brain; thus, acting as a great tool in psychiatry to detect, understand and treat disorders.
The BigBrain Project has succeeded in stimulating various other high-funded projects and has also started work on a second brain. Data collected through process likes QEEG, would help supplement the BigBrain database, but the question of HOW the brain is actually able to coordinate movement, thought, emotions, conscious and subconscious state, and its wide functionary of 100 billion neurons along with a thousand other questions arousing in your minds, is still unanswered.
The BigBrain database can be found here.
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Views presented in the article are those of the author and not of ED.