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Fantastic voyage: Virtual flight through the brain (Video).

Article / Review by on January 31, 2012 – 6:50 pmNo Comments

Fantastic voyage: Stanford researcher offers a virtual flight through the brain

“A single human brain has more switches than all the computers, routers and Internet connections on Earth,” said Stephen J. Smith, PhD, a Stanford professor of molecular and cellular physiology, as he took a Macworld audience on a breathtaking HD video tour of the most amazing computer of all — the brain.


A five-minute journey through the layers of mouse somatosensory cortex, whisker area. (See smithlab.stanford.edu for more information and to download higher-quality Quicktime movie versions for teaching or any other use.) Green fluorescence light up a small (3-5%) genetic subset of neurons, blue highlights the microtubule cores of all axons and dendrites, and red lights up the synapses. The inset image with roving magenta rectangle at upper left navigates the journey. Each red synapse comprises approximately 100,000 protein switches. There are more than six million synapses in the tissue volume rendered here, and at least one hundred billion synapses in the whole mouse brain. The human brain is a network of hundreds of trillions of synapses, interconnected by more than a hundred billion neurons through thousands of miles of axons and dendrites. Array tomography Kristina Micheva, Brad Busse, Nicholas Weiler, Nancy O’Rourke,Gordon Wang and Stephen Smith, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA. Original musical score composed and performed by Catherine Rose Smith

The audience was clearly moved by the beauty of the short film, which takes viewers on a virtual flight through the cerebral cortex of a mouse. “The finished product, titled Synaptaesthesia, was stunning,” Mauricio Grijalva wrote yesterday in a Macworld piece.

Smith and his team have pioneered a method for directly observing brain circuit development, structure and function called “array tomography.” Developed by a consortium of neuroscientists, computer scientists, and lab technicians from Stanford, Harvard, and MIT, this technique opens up a window on the brain that will provide researchers with insights on how to diagnose and treat neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s. (Smith’s website also features an animated video of a human brain with Alzheimer’s disease.)

While the techie Macworld audience was primarily interested in the how-to aspects of the film — how his team combined electron microscopy, specialized fluorescent molecules from jellyfish, high-resolution photography, super computers and Apple Computer technologies to create the final animation — Smith also explained why he believes the film is so emotionally appealing:

Human beings are hardwired to love the sight of trees because our evolutionary ancestors survived in trees. The brain is a vast forest of hundreds of billions of tree-shaped neurons — what could be more beautiful? Modern physics and computation have finally given us the ability to glimpse this beauty.

By Kris Newby
Stanford University Medical Center

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* Stanford University Medical Center integrates research, medical education and patient care at its three institutions – Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Hospital & Clinics and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.

**  The above story is adapted from materials provided by Stanford University School of Medicine

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