Scientists have developed an atlas of the brain which has the potential to improve research, treatment and surgery for conditions including epilepsy and cancer.
As part of the new EBRAINS digital infrastructure of the European Human Brain Project, a team of scientists has developed a microstructure atlas of the brain. The atlas is said to serve as an interface between neuroscience, computing and technology, linking different information about the brain in a spatially precise way.
The European Commission recently approved 150 million Euros for The Human Brain Project until the end of 2023, when the 10-year project is due to end.
The atlas, known as the Jülich-Brain, features close to 250 structurally distinct areas, each based on the analysis of 10 brains. More than 24,000 brain sections were digitised, assembled in 3D and mapped by experts.
Under the microscope, it can be seen that the human brain is not uniformly structured, but divided into clearly distinguishable areas. These differ both in function and in the distribution and density of nerve cells.
Researchers, led by Katrin Amunts, have presented a comprehensive digital map of the brain’s cellular architecture, which is available worldwide via the EBRAINS research infrastructure.
Katrin Amunts, director at the Jülich Research Centre in Germany and Professor at Dusseldorf University, says: “The digital brain atlas will help to interpret the results of neuroimaging studies more accurately. It is becoming the basis for a kind of ‘Google Earth’ of the brain – because the cellular level is the best interface for linking data about very different facets of the brain.
“The idea is that scientists can use the EBRAINS infrastructure in such a way that they can create workflows, ask very complex questions and run different experiments and analyses.
“Together with many partners in this project, we are building EBRAINS as a novel high-tech research infrastructure for the neurosciences,” says Amunts.
The EBRAINS infrastructure has been designed to address both neuroscience and medical questions, with a number of applications for the treatment of neurological conditions.
Amunts says: “it is very clear that that when you want to address medical questions, it’s important to have a basic understanding of how the brain works. We are doing both neuroscience and medical research, but for certain aspects we are moving beyond the basic neuroscience questions.
“We envisage that this atlas will help in a variety of ways. For example, in neurosurgery it will help to prepare better models of the brain of patients undergoing epilepsy surgery or undergoing tumour resection.
“Neurosurgeons need as many constraints and information about the brain as possible before they decide which piece of the tissue to remove and which is better not to touch. A microstructure atlas can help a lot with these kinds of decisions.”
The EBRAINS team has struck up collaborations with a number of researchers across Europe, including a clinical trial in Marseille for patients undergoing epilepsy surgery. The trial aims to develop better models of the brains of patients in order to better predict which parts of the tissue should or should not be removed. Results will be compared to see if there are any benefits for the patient using the EBRAINS model over a classic approach to neurosurgery.
Another application for the EBRAINS atlas is for patients undergoing deep brain stimulation, a method used for patients with Parkinson’s disease, which involves the placement of electrodes in the depths of the brain.
Amunts says: “We observe that some patients benefit significantly from deep brain stimulation surgery. Others benefit but have some side effects, then there are also patients who do not benefit.
“The question is, why this is the case? There are many factors influencing the result of surgery, but one is the localisation of the electrodes.
“This goes back to the underlying microstructure of the brain and here, again, we hope that this Atlas brings in more precise information from which surgeons and patients can then benefit.”
The EBRAINS project is encouraging clinicians and neuroscientists to share and exchange their own data via the platform to help medical scientists facilitate their research.
In the current landscape, these datasets have different formats and can be very fragmented, making it difficult to share and merge data to increase sample sizes. EBRAINS says it has the tools to solve these problems, helping to link data on gene expression, connectivity and functional activity to better understand brain functions and the mechanisms of diseases.
Amunts says: “Often we have colleagues who collect extremely valuable data, but it isn’t very well documented for other people to use.
“EBRAINS provides a platform and infrastructure where such data can be documented and curated so that they can be exchanged with other clinical and neuroscience colleagues.”
This has the potential to be a useful tool for studying rare diseases. A large number of subjects are needed for studying a medical condition, so for most hospitals, it is impossible to obtain the necessary information from such a small sample size.
Amunts says: “if you think about rare diseases, a hospital may see five patients per year. So here, the software allows us to collect information from patients with such diseases and run analyses using AI or other tools and combine the data from various sources.
“The idea is to bring together this body of data from these patients and make it available to other researchers and clinicians.”
Amunts says her team created EBRAINS to be more than a research project, with a long-term vision of making the platform available to scientists beyond the finalisation of the Human Brain Project in three years’ time.
“It is exciting to see how far the combination of brain research and digital technologies has progressed,” says Amunts. “Many of these developments converge in the Jülich -Brain Atlas and on EBRAINS. They help us – and more and more researchers worldwide – to better understand the complex organization of the brain and to jointly uncover how things are connected.”