BigBrain – What Does It Mean?

jbeck.jpg From James Beck, Ph.D., Director of Research Programs

This blog is part two in a series of three about the BigBrain.

Several weeks ago saw the announcement of a description of a new and highly detailed atlas of the brain, called BigBrain.  PDF wrote about how one person, making the decision to donate their brain, has made a significant contribution to science.  Indeed, that is true.  But what does this really mean for the future of neuroscience … and Parkinson’s research?

  1. BigBrain is like the Google Earth of the brain, allowing researchers to not only see the big picture of brain anatomy but also allowing them to zoom in with incredible resolution to practically see individual cells.
  2. Although BigBrain is like Google Earth, it currently does not have any labels.  That is, if you do not already know what you are looking at, BigBrain will not be able to help you.  (Is that New York City or Jersey City that I see?) Not all scientists are experts in neuroanatomy and so not everyone looking at BigBrain can delineate every brain structure.  Besides, annotating BigBrain will only need to happen once.  As this is done over time, researchers of all stripes will be able to ask interesting questions.
  3. BigBrain is helpful, but it’s just that: one person’s brain … Just like the first genome sequenced in the Human Genome Project was just one person’s DNA.  Half the battle here has been establishing the procedures to actually create a BigBrain.  As more courageous individuals donate their tissue, scientists will be able to generate more BigBrains in order to capture all the individual variation that is in each of our heads.

In sum, BigBrain is what they call “enabling technology.”  On its own it does not do much, but when combined with other technologies it is a powerful tool that can move science forward.  Thinking what the personal computer or the Internet have done recently, it will be exciting to see how this will change neuroscience.

(A view from the BigBrain atlas. The substantia nigra, where dopamine neurons are lost in PD, are the dark bands located below the two dark circles in the center.)

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