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Brain images
These are just a few of the brain images that appear in a newly published atlas of the human brain. (Credit: Allen Institute for Brain Science)

As neuroscience marches on, researchers are creating more and more brain maps and atlases – but the Allen Human Brain Reference Atlas is a rarity. This week it’s actually being published as a 350-page atlas you can hold in your hands.

Like most brain references, the detailed map of a single human brain is available online. The Allen Institute for Brain Science’s reference atlas shows brain structure down to the cellular level, at a resolution of 1 micron per pixel. The anatomical map, based on trillions of bytes of imaging data, is supplemented by readings from two different types of brain scans.

This sort of atlas usually stays online. In contrast, the illustration-heavy Comprehensive Cellular-Resolution Atlas of the Adult Human Brain takes up pretty much all of the latest issue of the Journal of Comparative Neurology.

“It’s actually a highly unusual publication. … We’re pretty much lacking in structural maps of the human brain,” Allen Institute neuroscientist Ed Lein, the study’s senior author, told GeekWire. By some accounts, it could be the first such anatomical map of the full human brain to make its print debut in more than a century.

Allen Hum;an Brain Reference Atlas
This variety of images shows how the Allen Human Brain Reference Atlas is organized. (Credit: Allen Institute for Brain Science)

The map is based on intensive study of a normal brain from a 34-year-old female donor. First, the intact brain’s internal structure was mapped using magnetic resonance imaging and diffusion-weighted imaging. Then it was sliced up into 2,700 film-thin sections. Scientists selected a sampling of 106 sections for staining and detailed study.

The atlas makes note of 862 structures, spanning the wrinkled neocortex as well as the white matter beneath the gray matter. In addition to the hundreds of illustrations, there are more than 20 pages of text providing the background for the atlas, plus references to more detailed imagery online.

“I view this as combining the best of all three ways of publishing,” Lein said.

Lein hopes the atlas will help researchers in labs as well as brain specialists in clinics. “This article is giving you the high-level overview … the macro view,” he explained.

Having that perspective should help brain scientists make clearer connections between the brains they see in front of them, the genes they analyze and the  data they see on their screens. Even in this digital age, there’s a place for a printed atlas, Lein said.

“It’s a way of quickly navigating at a high level, which is difficult to do in a digital database,” said Lein, who is 47. “Perhaps younger people than I would disagree, but I still find value in that.”

The principal author of “Comprehensive Cellular-Resolution Atlas of the Human Brain” is Song-Lin Ding of the Allen Institute for Brain Science. Ding and Lein are among 40 authors.

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