Washington: A team of researchers has built the first atlas of white-matter microstructure in the human brain.
The project’s final results have the potential to change the face of neuroscience and medicine over the coming decade.
The work by European researchers relied on groundbreaking MRI technology and was funded by the EU’s future and emerging technologies program with a grant of 2.4 million Euros.
The participants of the project, called CONNECT, were drawn from leading research centres in countries across Europe including Israel, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Denmark, Switzerland and Italy.
The new atlas combines three-dimensional images from the MRI scans of 100 brains of volunteers. To achieve this, CONNECT developed advanced MRI methods providing unprecedented detail and accuracy.
“The UCL team use the latest computer modelling algorithms and hardware to invent new imaging techniques. The techniques we devised were key to realising the new CONNECT brain atlas,” Professor Daniel Alexander, a CONNECT steering committee member from the UCL Department of Computer Science, said.
“The imaging techniques reveal new information about brain structure that help us understand how low-level cellular architecture relate to high-level thought processes,” Alexander said.
Currently, biomedical research teams around the world studying brain science rely on a brain atlas produced by painstaking and destructive histological methods on the brains of a few individuals who donated their bodies to science.
The new atlas simulates the impossible process of painstakingly examining every mm2 of brain tissue (of which there are around 100 million per brain) with a microscope, while leaving the brain in tact.
The key novelty in the atlas is the mapping of microscopic features (such an average cell size and packing density) within the white matter, which contains the neuronal fibres that transmit information around the living brain.
The results of the project, obtained through advanced image processing techniques, provide new depth and accuracy in our understanding of the human brain in health and disease.
The atlas describes the brain’s microstructure in standardized space, which enables non-expert users, such as physicians or medical researchers, to exploit the wealth of knowledge it contains.
The atlas contains a variety of new images that represent different microscopic tissue characteristics, such as the fibre diameter and fibre density across the brain, all estimated using MRI. These images will serve as the reference standard of future brain studies in both medicine and basic neuroscience.
The project will dramatically facilitate and promote future research into white matter structure and function.
Historically in neuroscience, the vast majority of research effort has been invested in understanding and studying gray matter and neurons, while white matter has received relatively little attention.
The findings of the study have been recently presented in Paris.