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Software maps brain’s nerve bundles

BROWN U. (US) — Combining visual clarity with a Web-based digital map interface, computer scientists have created 2-dimensional software to examine neural connections in the human brain.

The program could help scientists better understand myelinated axons, which are linked to a variety of pathologies, including autism.

The bundles of individual nerves that transmit information from one part of the brain to the other, like fiber-optic cables, are so intricate and so interwoven that they can be difficult to trace through standard imaging techniques.

The goal of the new software is simplicity. The planar maps extract the neural bundles from the imaging data and present them in 2-D—a format familiar to medical professionals working with brain models and the web interface integrates the neural maps into a geographical digital maps framework that professionals can use seamlessly to explore the data.

“In short, we have developed a new way to make 2-D diagrams that illustrate 3-D connectivity in human brains,” says David Laidlaw, professor of computer science at Brown University. “You can see everything here that you can’t really see with the bigger (3-D) images.”

The research is published in the journal IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics

The 2-D neural maps are simplified representations of neural pathways in the brain, created using a medical imaging protocol that measures the water diffusion within and around nerves of the brain. The sheathing is composed of myelin, a fatty membrane that wraps around axons, the threadlike extensions of neurons that make up nerve fibers.

Medical investigators can use the 2-D neural maps to pinpoint spots where the myelin may be compromised, which could affect the vitality of the neural circuits. That can help identify certain pathologies that brain scientists increasingly believe manifest themselves in myelinated axons.

Diseases associated with the loss of myelin affect more than 2 million people worldwide, according to the Myelin Project, an  organization dedicated to advancing myelin-related research.

The 2-D neural maps can help identify whether the structure or the size of neural bundles differs among individuals and how any differences may relate to performance, skills or other traits. “It’s an anatomical measure,” Laidlaw says. “It’s a tool that we hope will help the field.”

While zeroing in on the brain’s wiring, the computer scientists added a “linked view” so users can toggle back and forth between the neural bundles in the 2-D image and the larger 3-D picture of the brain.

“What you see is what you operate,” says graduate student Radu Jianu, the paper’s lead author. “There’s no change in perspective with what you’re working with on the screen.”

Users can export the 2-D brain representations as images and display them in Web browsers using Google Maps. The program is also designed to share research. Scientists can use the Web to review brain research in other labs that may be useful to their own work.

“The advantage of using this mode of distribution is that users don’t have to download a large dataset, put it in the right format, and then use a complicated software to try and look at it, but can simply load a webpage,” Jianu says.

The National Institutes of Health funded the research.

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