Search Engines for Brain Available at Sight: The Reboot Human Brain Project

The human brain is smaller than you might expect: One of them, dripping with formaldehyde, fits in a single gloved hand of a lab supervisor here at the Jülich Research Center, in Germany.

Soon, this rubbery organ will be frozen solid, coated in glue, and then sliced into several thousand wispy slivers, each just 60 micrometers thick. A custom apparatus will scan those sections using 3D polarized light imaging (3D-PLI) to measure the spatial orientation of nerve fibers at the micrometer level. The scans will be gathered into a colorful 3D digital reconstruction depicting the direction of individual nerve fibers on larger scales—roughly 40 gigabytes of data for a single slice and up to a few petabytes for the entire brain. And this brain is just one of several to be scanned.

Neuroscientists hope that by combining and exploring data gathered with this and other new instruments they’ll be able to answer fundamental questions about the brain. The quest is one of the final frontiers—and one of the greatest challenges—in science.

Imagine being able to explore the brain the way you explore a website. You might search for the corpus callosum—the stalk that connects the brain’s two hemispheres—and then flip through individual nerve fibers in it. Next, you might view networks of cells as they light up during a verbal memory test, or scroll through protein receptors embedded in the tissue.

Right now, neuroscientists can’t do that. They lack the hardware to store and access the avalanche of brain data being produced around the world. They lack the software to bridge the gaps from genes, molecules, and cells to networks, connectivity, and human behavior.

“We don’t have the faintest idea of the molecular basis for diseases like Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia or others. That’s why there are no cures,” says Paolo Carloni, director of the Institute for Computational Biomedicine at Jülich. “To make a big difference, we have to dissect [the brain] into little pieces and build it up again.”

That’s why there’s no choice but to move from small-scale investigations to large, collaborative efforts. “The brain is too complex to sit in your office and solve it alone,” says neuroscientist Katrin Amunts, who coleads the 3D-PLI project at Jülich. Neuroscientists need to make the same transition that physicists and geneticists once did—from solo practitioners to consortia—and that transformation won’t be easy.

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