Web app is like ‘Google maps’ for the brain

"We have a big advantage because we're the only group—really in the world—that has a flat map of the brain," says Larry Swanson. (Credit: Remko van Dokkum/Flickr)

A new online tool for scientists and doctors called Golgi makes it easy to explore the brain of a rat.

The web app, unveiled today, offers details at the click of a button about how the regions of the brain communicate and interact.

Rat brains are close enough to human brains to offer valuable insights but are far easier to study and therefore represent a larger pool of research data.

“We have a big advantage because we’re the only group—really in the world—that has a flat map of the brain,” says Larry Swanson, professor of biological sciences at USC Dornsife.


Swanson collaborated with USC grad student Ramsay Brown, who designed the program as an undergraduate working in Swanson’s lab.

To display the brain’s 3D structure on 2D screens, Swanson and Brown used the embryonic brain—which begins as a flat sheet of cells—as a guide. This flattens the brain and keeps related portions of the brain located close together. Flattening the brain lets users click around and display connectome and other data directly on regions they’re interested in learning about for research or treatment.

“We designed a really intuitive way to explore the more nuanced details about the brain and connectome,” Brown says. “Making this data easy and accessible will improve how scientists and doctors explore, explain, and treat human conditions and restore quality of life—and that’s really special to us.”

Brown and Swanson think this program is just the beginning. Connectomics, the subfield of neuroscience that studies and maps the brain’s wiring, is advancing quickly and providing better maps as the technique evolves.

Programs like Golgi will help doctors and researchers make sense of these new maps and make better medical and scientific decisions faster.

“Many people now think that understanding these neurological diseases is going to require understanding the circuitry of the brain,” Swanson says.

The National Institutes of Health supported the project.

Source: USC