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European Neuroscientists Unveil Most Detailed Brain Model Yet

Aired 6/20/13 on KPBS News.

Scientists on Thursday involved in a major European neuroscience project unveiled the most detailed 3D computer model of the human brain yet. A San Diego neuroscientist closely involved in the U.S. BRAIN Initiative says these findings will help accelerate research happening here.

President Barack Obama announced in April an ambitious effort to map the human brain.

But his BRAIN Initiative faces stiff competition from another big publicly-funded neuroscience undertaking: the European Union's Human Brain Project. On Thursday, the project's scientists unveiled the most detailed 3D computer model of the human brain yet.

"BigBrain is the first ever brain model in 3D which really presents a realistic model of a human brain," said Karl Zilles, senior professor of the Jülich Aachen Research Alliance in Germany and one of the architects behind BigBrain.

Amunts, Zilles, Evans et al.

To build the BigBrain, researchers first had to slice the post-mortem brain of a 65-year-old woman into thousands of 20 micrometer-thick sections—not quite as thin as Saran Wrap, but close.

Zilles and his EU-funded colleagues sliced a real post-mortem brain into thousands of sections, each thinner than a strand of human hair. They scanned the layers and stacked them back together in a 3D computer model with 50 times more resolution than previous brain maps. If the human brain were like a city, previous brain maps could only distinguish between neighborhoods; BigBrain will let researchers zoom in on specific cross-streets.

The BigBrain team is making its data available to any scientist who wants to study the structural basis of brain development and disease.

BigBrain marks an early milestone for Europe's Human Brain Project. The fledgling U.S. Brain Initiative hasn't produced anything comparable yet, having only been officially announced in April. But Terry Sejnowski, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute and UC San Diego closely involved in the U.S. Brain Initiative, said researchers on either side of the Atlantic aren't really competing.

"It's all going to be needed," said Sejnowski. "Because the brain is such a highly evolved, diverse organ, we're just beginning to grasp the complexity."

Sejnowski said there's enough room for several big government-backed brain missions. In fact, he's expecting China to announce its own entry in the brain race any day now.

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