Groundbreaking 3D brain scan generates 1.4 petabytes of data from millimeter-sized sample

What just happened? Researchers have reconstructed a small slice of the human brain down to the level of individual synapses, representing a major leap forward for brain science. And we're not just talking about a few neurons here. This millimeter-sized cube contains an astonishing 57,000 cells, 230 millimeters of tiny blood vessels and approximately 150 million synaptic connections, all mapped out in stunning 3D detail.

The process began with a surgically removed sample of brain tissue from a woman suffering from epilepsy during brain surgery intended to help control her seizures. After chemical preparation to enhance contrast, the sample was embedded in resin and cut into an astonishing 5,000 sections, each one one-thousandth the thickness of a human hair.

From there, high-throughput electron microscopy was used to scan each sliver, generating a staggering 1.4 petabytes of raw data. The Google team then used a machine-learning model to align and reconstruct all the 2D images into a detailed 3D dataset.

The map contains the highest-resolution image of the human brain ever made, covering one cubic millimeter which is one millionth the size of the entire brain.

The math whiz kids at Tom's Hardware performed some numbers to calculate the space needed for a complete map of the human brain. It will include 1.6 zettabytes of storage – a data center that cost $50 billion and spans 140 acres.

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The model has already revealed some surprising insights into brain architecture at the cellular level. For one, the non-neuronal cells that support and insulate neurons outnumber them by about 2 to 1, with oligodendrocytes being the most prevalent type, which form the protective myelin coating around the axon.

On average, each neuron makes connections with thousands of other neurons. But the team also identified rare examples of a single axon making more than 50 high-strength synaptic connections with a single neuron, as well as some axons wrapped in long, interconnected “vortices,” the causes of which have yet to be determined. Till now are not clear.

Since the sample came from an epilepsy patient, some of these bizarre structures may be related to the disorder rather than normal brain anatomy.

Nonetheless, this project has the potential to expand our understanding of the incredible architectural complexity of the brain at the cellular scale. After all, there's a lot we still don't know about how the hardware of the human brain operates.

This map can be freely accessed by researchers from a web platform called NeuroGlancer for their own studies of how the human cortex processes information and stores memories at this unprecedented resolution.

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