Detailed "Atlas" of Human Brain Brings us Closer Than Ever to Understanding Ourselves

First Posted: Jun 30, 2017 08:28 AM EDT

Brain mapping is not a new concept. Leonardo da Vinci examined the skull in the 15th century, and the German anatomist Korbinian Brodmann mapped the cerebral cortex in 1909. Most recently, a broad-scale compilation of MRI images was compiled by the Human Connectome Project in 2016.

But the latest attempt is the most stunning.

The Allen Brain Atlas represents an incredibly detailed collection of magnetic resonance images (MRI) and diffusion weighted imaging with an unprecedented level of resolution. These two imaging techniques captured the brain's structure and the way the fibers connect in the brain, and also provide detailed cellular-level mapping. Researchers separated the brain into 2,716 thin slices and used staining techniques to label individual cells and create a general cell architecture. 

All of the data was combined into a single open-source digital atlas, which is accessible to the public. According to, the purpose of the Atlas is to understand the fundamentals of the cortex through studying the brain's components, computation and cognition. Although the atlas has limitations in terms of the general population given that it was made from only one human brain, it gives scientists a new understanding of the brain's anatomy in great detail.

Specifically, neuroscientists are trying to understand how the mass of tissue inside our skulls should be divided up in terms of function, and what different areas of the brain actually do.

"There simply hasn't been a complete map of the human brain as a reference piece of material for anyone studying any part of the brain, and this is an essential part of doing research," said researcher Ed Lein of the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

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