Human map

Most of us think little of hopping on Google Maps to look at everything from a bird’s-eye view of an entire continent to an on-the-ground view of a specific street, all carefully labeled. Thanks to a digital atlas published this week, the same is now possible with the human brain.

Ed Lein and colleagues at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle have created a comprehensive, open-access digital atlas of the human brain, which was published this week in The Journal of Comparative Neurology.

“Essentially what we were trying to do is to create a new reference standard for a very fine anatomical structural map of the complete human brain, ” says Lein, the principal investigator on the project. “It may seem a little bit odd, but actually we are a bit lacking in types of basic reference materials for mapping the human brain that we have in other organisms like mouse or like monkey, and that is in large part because of the enormous size and complexity of the human brain.”

The project, which spanned five years, focused on a single healthy postmortem brain from a 34-year-old woman. The researchers started with the big picture: They did a complete scan of the brain using two imaging techniques (magnetic resonance imaging and diffusion weighted imaging), which allowed them to capture both overall brain structure and the connectivity of brain fibers.

Next the researchers took the brain and sliced it into 2, 716 very thin sections for fine-scale, cellular analysis. They stained a portion of the sections with a traditional Nissl stain to gather information about general cell architecture. They then used two other stains to selectively label certain aspects of the brain, including structural elements of cells, fibers in the white matter, and specific types of neurons.

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