Researchers have developed a new technique that could speed up the creation of 3D images of the entire brain.
To understand how information flows and is used in the brain, scientists must map the structure of the neurons inside the brain and body, developing a sort of Google Earth view of the brain. We have seen several innovations in creating 3D images for commercial use, including an app that can create 3D images within Google Maps and a device that can turn a phone into a 3D camera. However, the imaging and processing techniques that are most commonly used for brain scans require decades to produce a complete map – longer than the timespan of a typical research career. This is because they typically require researchers to physically section and image the specimens. In addition, each technique only gives a partial picture: medical-type imaging reveals connections between brain regions; visible light microscopy images neuronal circuits at the cellular level; and electron microscopy (EM) identifies synapses and intracellular structures. A paper published recently, however, outlines a new technique that could develop a complete image of the brain at a rapid speed.
Dr. Ann-Shyn Chiang is Director of the Brain Research Center at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. His team has developed a method of imaging using synchrotron X‐ray tomography to quickly create 3D images of neurons. A synchrotron accelerates electrons to produce an extremely powerful source of X-rays. Previously, Dr. Chiang’s team spent a decade mapping the neurons in just half of the fruit fly brain. As proof of concept, using the new technique, the team took just 10 minutes to image the entire fruit fly brain. The team has also used the technique to image a whole mouse brain. Dr Chiang’s hope is that this technique will make it possible to image the individual neurons in the entire human brain – a long-standing goal for neuroscientists.
Chiang believes that AI is likely to play a key role in future advances in this and similar procedures and that with the increasing rate of technological breakthroughs, “a comprehensive X-ray mapping of the human connectome [the neural connections in the brain] should become feasible in the not-too-distant future.” Because this is a very large-scale enterprise, he is also advocating an international collaboration involving the 30 synchrotron facilities worldwide. What advances could come from an ability to rapidly create 3D maps of the entire human brain?