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Atlas of the human brain

22 October 2012

Atlas of the human brain
Excerpt from the microstructural atlas, showing the left arcuate fasciculus (part of the language network) derived from a population of participants.

Investigators from Cardiff have participated in an EU study that may change the map of neuroscience and medicine.

Professor Derek Jones, of the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre (CUBRIC) was a key member of an EU consortium of 12 research groups, who have built the first atlas of white-matter microstructure in the human brain.

The work relied on groundbreaking MRI technology and was funded by the EU's future and emerging technologies program (FET/ICT) with a grant of 2.4M Euros.

The participants of the project, called CONNECT, were drawn from leading research centers in countries across Europe including: Israel, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Denmark, Switzerland and Italy.

Biomedical research teams around the world studying brain science currently rely on a brain atlas that was produced by painstaking and destructive histological methods on the brains of a few individuals who donated their bodies to science. The new atlas uses MRI exams of more than 100 subjects. MRI produces three-dimensional pictures of each brain, which are then combined to form the atlas.

CONNECT developed new advanced MRI methods providing unprecedented detail and accuracy in the new atlas. The atlas is similar to what we might obtain by examining every millimetre square of brain tissue (around 100 million per brain) in each brain with a microscope. The new MRI methods automate that painstaking process and, moreover, leave the brain intact.

The key novelty in the atlas is the mapping of microscopic features (such as average cell size and packing density) within the white matter, which contains the neuronal fibers that transmit information around the living brain. The breakthrough in this project was made possible by new MRI technology that produces new kinds of images of the human brain non-invasively. In addition, the atlas combines and averages information from more than 100 healthy subjects aged 25-35 years. 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 new atlas describes 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 fiber diameter and fiber 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.

On Friday, October 19th 2012, after three years of research, the project investigators will meet in Paris to announce their conclusions. The project's final results have the potential to change the face of neuroscience and medicine over the coming decade.

Speaking about the project, Professor Derek Jones said: "Being part of the European CONNECT team has been one of the most rewarding research projects of my career. Europe leads the way in microstructural imaging, and the UK, in particular, punches well above its weight. Of course, it is particularly gratifying to be flying the flag for Wales in Europe!

"CONNECT has already delivered extremely useful results, maximizing the potential of existing MRI technologies, but more importantly, it has provided exciting insight into what could be achieved in the future, with more investment in advanced MR technologies, particularly in hardware.

"Our hope is that we have shaped not only the way researchers think about and use microstructural imaging data - through realization of the atlas - but that we can also influence the development of MR hardware, to allows us to probe deeper into the microstructure of the brain."

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. This owes largely to the lack of effective research tools to study white matter, even though it comprises about half the volume of the brain.

The new MRI methods developed in CONNECT allow researchers, for the first time, to visualize the micro-structure of the living brain over the whole brain. This opens new realms in our understanding of our most complex organ.

In the future, the project members intend to use the technology they have developed to study the dynamics and time dependence of the micro-structure in white matter. For example they will search for a finger print or a trace that a cognitive task imprints on white matter microstructure encoding new experiences in the wiring of the brain. Another future direction is to characterize and understand micro-structural changes caused by different neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's or Schizophrenia, in order to develop better diagnostic procedures for these and other devastating conditions.

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