Researchers digitize brains, seek patterns of behavior

The UCSD Brain Observatory preserves each brain as a collection of digitized images that researchers can examine for patterns relating to behavior.

Neuroanatomist Jacopo Annese heads the Brain Observatory at the University of California, San Diego, where he and his team look for connections between maps of brain structure and human behavior. Annese launched the Digital Brain Library when he acquired the brain of a man who couldn’t remember anything for more than 20 seconds. Since then he has acquired about 35 donated brains and has been examining their physical characteristics. The process starts with slicing the brain into tiny slivers.

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Annese said:

We’re studying brain structure and trying to understand how the architecture of the brain supports our behavior, our thoughts, our memories, our way of thinking.

Annese explained the process:

The brain is sliced into thin sections, serially, going from one tip at the front to the back. And this is an operation that lasts a few days because you go very slowly.

Jacopo Annese looks at the glass slides of a brain dissection. The average human brain produces 2,600 to 3,000 slivers, which Annese and his team use to search for a neurological portrait of the person. Image Credit: UCSD

A normal-sized brain produces about 3,000 slivers. Each slice is no thicker than a human hair. Each sliver is placed on glass, then stained and digitized. Eventually, researchers digitally re-assemble the slices, creating a virtual 3-D image of the brain.

Annese asked:

If somebody has a pattern of behavior during their life, is that pattern of behavior reflected in the structure of their brain? Can we see it?

To help answer those questions, Annese seeks out people who knew the donors and what they were like while alive. He remarked:

It is fascinating to try and connect a life with the actual brain.

But locating those who knew donors can be a challenge. So Annese is looking for donors to commit to the program while they’re alive. Ninety-two-year-old Bette Ferguson signed up, and she has no regrets about willing her brain to the observatory when she dies. She said:

I’m proud of it. I mean look, I’m not going to need that brain anymore. Once I graduate, goodbye! If he can take that brain and learn something from it, I think that’s important because he’s studied me.

In addition to assessing her cognitive abilities, Annese will ask Ferguson about her unique life experiences like her role in the movie “The Wizard of Oz.” Ferguson said:

I was the flying monkey that came down and picked up Toto and took him to the witch’s castle.

Annese is curious as to whether or not there are similarities between the brain of Ferguson and other individuals: those who have aged successfully and women or men with similar talents. He believes understanding the link between one’s brain and behavior could very well lead to insights into treating brain injuries or diseases.

Bottom line: Jacopo Annese of the Brain Observatory at the University of California, San Diego, launched the Digital Brain Library, which preserves brains as digitized slices that scientists can view from various perspectives. The 2011 research by Annese and his team involves mapping the brain and linking it to patterns of behavior.

Via NSF Science Nation

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