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An Atlas of the Brain: Researchers Unveil the Most Detailed Brain Maps Ever

Researchers have developed a new “brain atlas” that maps over 3,000 different types of brain cells. Find out how this new high-res brain map will aid in diagnosing and treating brain diseases.

Recently, an international team of scientists took a major step forward in brain research by creating the largest and most detailed map of the human brain ever made. Using advanced imaging techniques, researchers working with the NIH-funded BRAIN Initiative – Cell Census Network (BICCN) mapped over 200 regions across the brain and identified more than 3,000 different types of brain cells. Together, these new high-resolution maps provide an unprecedented 3D view of the brain’s structure and will act as a monumentally significant resource for future studies of brain development and disease formation and progression. 

Read on below to learn how this new atlas of the brain will aid in developing more targeted treatments, diagnosis methods, and prevention strategies for diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other neurologic conditions.

How Did Researchers Create the New Brain Maps?

The new brain atlas is the result of pioneering efforts from an international group of researchers, each working to map distinct regions or aspects of the brain. Many researchers worked on mapping the cell structures of different parts of the brain (where different types of brain cells are located and how they communicate). Others contributed maps of the various genetic properties and functions of specific brain cells.

Some research teams also assembled detailed maps to use in comparing how the anatomy of the human brain differs from that of chimpanzees, gorillas, and other primates. These particular maps will be especially useful for scientists performing pre-clinical research using animal models, as they will help researchers translate important findings about treatment and diagnosis to human clinical trials.

The group of researchers published more than 20 individual papers detailing the results of this mammoth undertaking. Researchers will be able to continue adding information as future discoveries expand on our understanding of the brain.

How Does the Brain Atlas Help Researchers? 

The detailed brain maps created by the researchers have exciting potential applications for better understanding, diagnosing, and treating a range of brain diseases and disorders. Some of the key possible uses of the brain atlas include: 

Tracking Where Brain Diseases Start and How They Spread

The brain atlas acts as a comprehensive reference for how specific types of cells function and where in the brain they are found. This creates a strong foundation for researchers looking to better understand the role of particular brain cells or regions of the brain in different diseases.

These maps could also provide crucial insights into how certain areas of the brain are affected differently by multiple diseases. Researchers can use this knowledge to understand how certain diseases or symptoms may be connected and to better target specific neurons or parts of the brain for treatment.

Enabling Earlier and More Accurate Diagnosis

Another promising application is using the maps to identify biomarkers that can aid in diagnosis. For example, some of the brain maps revealed in unprecedented detail specific patterns of neurodegeneration in the cortex that have long been associated with Alzheimer’s. In the future, doctors may be able to compare advanced imaging of an individual’s brain to these maps to identify specific patterns that match those seen in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. This could enable earlier and more accurate diagnosis, allowing doctors to treat the disease before severe symptoms begin.  

Monitoring Disease Progression and Treatment

The maps also open up possibilities for tracking the specific ways brain diseases progress over time. Additionally, by comparing images of brains in various stages of a disease against healthy brain maps, researchers can gain insights into how fast the disease is advancing and how well treatments are working.

The brain maps can also act as a baseline for testing new therapies that target specific brain cells or regions. For example, one of the scientists involved in the brain atlas project notes that the brain maps may help Parkinson’s researchers develop treatments that specifically target the area of the brain where the majority of dopamine-producing cells are located (called the midbrain). Because misregulation of dopamine is a major component of Parkinson’s disease, this could aid in the development of more effective therapies for Parkinson’s and related disorders. 

Future Research

The new brain maps are the culmination of years of work across many different research teams. While the brain atlas is a landmark achievement, the researchers involved emphasize that this is still early progress in a much longer scientific undertaking. The BICCN project was launched in 2017, with initial findings from the first completed studies published over two years ago. The BICCN’s latest findings are being published to open-access public databases, meaning doctors and researchers across the world can use this data freely. This is being done to encourage the global scientific community to build on this groundbreaking research and accelerate future progress.

More studies are needed to expand our understanding of the development, structure, and functioning of both healthy and diseased brains. For example, researchers may use the brain maps to launch deeper investigations into how brain cells or communication between different brain regions can differ among individuals based on age, genetics, and life experiences. 

Additionally, as scientists continue to refine and expand on these brain maps, our understanding of the brain will grow exponentially. While there is still much more research to be done, the brain atlas puts us one step closer to understanding a range of brain diseases and disorders and developing personalized treatments based on an individual’s unique brain structure.

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