An international group of researchers has completed the first-ever digital simulation of a small piece of brain tissue. An international group of researchers has completed the first-ever digital simulation of a small piece of brain tissue. An international group of researchers has completed the first-ever digital simulation of a small piece of brain tissue. (Photo: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock)

First 3D map of brain tissue holds promise for future medical treatments

Scientists announce a major breakthrough in the computer reconstruction of a brain.

In a world where immersive 3D maps of the human body are available on everything from an iPad to a web browser, it may not seem like such a big deal to create something similar for the brain. However, the difference lies not in how this three-pound grey mass looks, but how it works; a complex mystery of 86 billion neurons, trillions of synapses, and the chemical and electrical processes that tie it all together.

For more than 20 years, the Blue Brain Project has been working to map the human brain digitally in an effort to one day create a complete working computer simulation. Underscoring just how complex this undertaking is, the researchers recently announced a huge breakthrough – the digital recreation of a slice of a rat's brain roughly the size of a grain of sand.

digital brain tissueThe Blue Brain Project has created the first digital reconstruction of brain tissue ever made. (Photo: Blue Brain Project)

The groundbreaking digital model, the work of 82 international scientists from countries like Spain, the United States, Israel, China, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, features 30,000 neurons connected by nearly 40 million synapses. It's a small snapshot of a very large picture, but one that allows scientists to simulate real-time electrical activity, confirm previous studies on real tissue samples, and explore new insights into how our most important organ functions.

As you can see in the video below, watching virtual brain tissue process signals is akin to a massive orchestra performing a classical symphony – an analogy not lost on the project's team members. It's this music of electrical activity, Prof. Idan Segev of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told the Daily Mail, that should "imitate the real biological network that you're trying to understand."

Henry Markram, director of the Blue Brain Project, says digital models like this one will one day pull back the curtain on the more than 600 brain disorders currently known to science.

“It’s not about understanding one disease,” he told Wired magazine. “It’s about understanding a complex system that can go wrong in 600 different ways. It’s about finding the weak points.”

In the study, Markham added that while this breakthrough simulation is an imperfect digital reconstruction of biological tissue, it's nonetheless an exciting start. “The job of reconstructing and simulating the brain is a large-scale collaborative one, and the work has only just begun," he said.

Check out Markram's TED Talk on the goals of the Blue Brain Project below:

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First 3D map of brain tissue holds promise for future medical treatments
Scientists announce a big breakthrough in the computer reconstruction of a piece of a rat's brain.