An international team of scientists has created a digital representation of a rat’s brain, in a project hailed as a breakthrough in brain research. The 3D model will allow researchers to examine brain phenomena in an entirely digital environment, where in the past such experiments were possible using biological tissue only.
This project is a result of years of experiments and algorithm development by 82 international scientists, aiming to create a supercomputer that details the smallest chemical reactions in the brain. The data collected will help researchers to better understand the brain and develop new treatments for brain illnesses.
The reconstruction: A digital approximation of brain tissue
As part of the study, the electrical behavior of the virtual brain tissue was simulated on supercomputers and found to match the behavior observed in a number of experiments on the physical brain.
The Blue Brain Project was able to create a computer representation of about a third of a cubic millimeter of brain tissue containing about 30,000 neurons connected by nearly 40 million synapses (structures that permit a neuron to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron).
“Simulating the emergent electrical behavior of this virtual tissue on supercomputers reproduced a range of previous observations made in experiments on the brain, validating its biological accuracy and providing new insights into the functioning of the neocortex,” according to Blue Brain Project. The neocortex is part of the cerebral cortex concerned with sight and hearing.
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Although this functioning map of thousands of brain cells is phenomenal for many, some critics are already saying that it’s not likely to reveal more about the brain’s workings than simpler simulations. But the fact that the scientists succeeded to digitally reconstruct and simulate brain tissue is a feat in itself.
“The data will be used by future generations”
Segev sees the study as building on the pioneering work of the Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal from 100 years ago, who began drawing every type of neuron in the brain by hand. He even drew arrows to describe how he thought the information was flowing from one neuron to the next.
“Today, we are doing what Cajal would be doing with the tools of today – building a digital representation of the neurons and synapses and simulating the flow of information between neurons on supercomputers,” Segev said in a statement. “Furthermore, the digitization of the tissue allows the data to be preserved and reused for future generations”.
To see the digital representation of the brain, check out the full set of experimental data and the digital reconstruction the researchers have put on a public web portal, allowing for future academic and scientific collaborations.
Photos: Blue Brain Project