Techniques used on Harry Potter movies are being used to create detailed 3D images of the brain.
Neuroscientists studying the structure and function of the brain produce huge amounts of data. Just 1 cubic millimeter of human brain tissue contains around 50,000 neurons, with each neuron forming around 6,000 connections with their neighbors. Traditional imaging techniques require researchers to go through two-dimensional computer images of stained neurons, constantly altering the view to see what’s behind a neuron’s branches. This is painstaking and time-consuming work. In order to speed up this process and turn the mounds of data into useful images, researchers are tuning to an unlikely source – Hollywood.
Neuroscientists in the Laboratory of Neuroimaging at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles have developed a technique for creating 3D images of brain scans. The scientists first applied the same rendering techniques used to make the graphics for Harry Potter movies to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, to produce extremely detailed images of the brain. They then combined this visualization software with virtual reality software to create 3D images so detailed that they can be used for virtual dissections – allowing users to pull apart colored, segmented VR images of a brain like pieces of Lego.
According to Taylor Ard, a neuroscientist in Arthur Toga’s lab, which is conducting the research, the technique will allow scientists to better understand the structure of the brain, saying, “The way that I learned it, we had to look at slices, and that’s real hard. This is a way that allows you to understand 3D structure better.” The team plans to release the program, called Neuro Imaging in Virtual Reality, online next year. We have already seen several innovations in creating 3D images for consumers, such as a scanner that can create high resolution 3D images without lasers, and a device that turns a phone into a 3D camera. Will this new technique allow researchers to better understand the structure of the brain?