Digging deeper into how the brain works is undoubtedly the main objective and challenge of neuroscience. And it is a singularly complex goal, probably one of the most difficult that science has ever undertaken. Thus, today should be, and surely is, a holiday for all professionals in this field, since a research team has completed a project that marks a before and after in this discipline, having created the first complete three-dimensional map of the mouse brain.
The project, called The Allen Mouse Brain Common Coordinate Framework, Has been carried out, over three years, by a team of researchers from the Allen Institute, a non-governmental and non-profit organization, based in the state of Seattle but with a worldwide presence, and which since 2003 addresses multiple areas of research related to neuroscience, cells, immunology, and other related areas.
The three-dimensional model they have managed to reproduce is intended to be a benchmark for the neuroscience community, their creators said. This is explained since mice are widely used in biomedical research. Their brains contain approximately 100 million cells spread over hundreds of different regions. As neuroscience data sets grow larger and more complex, a common spatial map of the brain becomes more necessary, as does the ability to accurately record many different types of data in a common 3D space to compare and correlate.
This 3D map originates from a partial version that was published in 2016 and that mapped the entire cortex, the outermost layer of the brain. Previous versions of the atlas were lower-resolution 3D maps, while the resolution of the current model is already good enough to be able to locate the locations of individual cells. The latest full-brain atlas has been openly available to the community since late 2017, and several different neuroscience teams have already used it in their projects and research.
With the exception of the projects mentioned above, until now all the brain models that had been obtained (both from rodents and other living things) had been achieved by obtaining a sample that was cut into very, very thin layers. And once this process was complete, they grouped together to generate a large image of the brain. The problem with this method, of course, is that in practice it was impossible to test different interactions between neurons, effects of neurotransmitters, etc. With a model like the one the researchers have just published, it is expected that neuroscience will experience great advances in the coming years.
Regarding future versions and evolutions of the map, the researchers they think they will be carried out by systems and tools based on artificial intelligence. This model has been carried out in a “manual” way, which is why it has taken so long. However, with the base completed and the information obtained from all studies carried out using the map, it is most likely that machine learning functions can be used to improve the map.
The future is very hopeful, as it promises to take understanding of the brain to a new level. And in doing so, neuroscientists will have a tool with which to develop new research programs and accelerate the research that is already underway. The institute compared their achievement to the efforts of the 1990s to sequence DNA from different agencies for the first time, a project that forever changed the way biologists work.