In the world of scientific research, animal rather than human models are often used — usually because it's unethical to use humans in particular studies, or simply because there are no resources to do so. But a new innovation may change all of that.

Researchers from Germany and Canada have collaborated to make a 3-D model of the human brain, called the BigBrain. It boasts a resolution of 20 microns, which is 50 times better than current models, and to put it into perspective, one can zoom into the brain to see artifacts and structures the size of human hairs.

The BigBrain will replace old imaging techniques in lab studies, like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), as it's more precise, offers information about disease development, and can factor in elements that current 2-D models cannot, such as brain volume and movement of signals between entire cortexes of the brain.

This new innovation also differs from current models because of the way it was established. Researchers used the post-mortem brain of a 65-year-old female organ donor. The brain was cut into 7,000 sections and the information from each piece was digitized. The researchers then spent many weeks putting this information back together using supercomputers to create this brain model with great resolution and fewer distortions than current models that can only zoom in to show pieces one millimeter large, while the BigBrain can zoom in to show pieces 20 micrometers large.

Dr. Katrin Amunts, Ph.D., professor of structural-functional brain mapping at RWTH Aachen University, has said that the innovation will mainly be used in population research, instead of clinical care. This means that all scientists wishing to perform research on the brain need not make their own model, or use resources from animals. The BigBrain allows for function and structure of normal brain to be simulated by a computer model, based on a real brain. Amunts has indicated, "BigBrain allows you to integrate molecular data."

Why is molecular data important?

Molecular data is information that scientists can collect from other models about the way diseases, in this case, of the brain, develop from the level of cells and their signaling. Often, without a human brain with which to work, scientists collect this data from individual neurons or smaller and less similar brains from animals. But this information cannot be implicated in humans because human conclusions often require research on living brains with particular sicknesses like Alzheimer's disease or dementia. The BigBrain, however, allows scientists to add information already known about cells and disease development to deepen their understanding of disease progression in humans and how best they can stop or treat it. The innovation provides a very necessary context for the information scientists can glean from brains and neurons in laboratory studies.

Amunts has explained, "The brain is a highly organized structure." When ailments or issues arise in the brain, the location of their occurrence is of importance. Amunts and colleagues have made their resolution so fine so that deeper brain structures can be identified, as well as locations of the brain analyzed. Amunts has clarified, "Defects in the brain can be localized to figure out pathogenesis." Her group has identified a number of brain "atlases," or locations at which many defects occur in situations like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. If pathogenesis, or disease development, are better understood, then treatments will become easier for scientists to develop.

Amunts and colleagues have made a major step in neuroscience as a response to Europe's Human Brain Project. Europe's project began in 2012 in order to understand more about disorders of the brain like neurodegenerative diseases, but also psychiatric and sleep disorders, the incidence of which has greatly increased in recent years.

As Amunts and her colleagues have made their BigBrain available to all scientists, with no plans to claim a monopoly over its use, this shows promise for President Obama's plan to direct $100 million in 2014 toward the American government's Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. The BigBrain could potentially provide insight to American neuroscientists as well as scientists across the globe dedicated to improving the lives of others.

Source: Amunts K, Lepage C, Borgeat L, et al. BigBrain: An Ultrahigh-Resolution 3D Human Brain Model. Science. 2013.