BigBrain: Mapping the Brain Down to the Cellular Level


Extremely detailed images of the human brain: this is made possible through “BigBrain,” a three-dimensional digital reconstruction of a complete human brain, which provides images with an unsurpassed spatial resolution of 20 micrometers, roughly corresponding to the size of a nerve cell or half the diameter of a of hair. For about five years, together with researchers from Montreal, Canada, and from Forschungszentrum Jülich,  JARA Senior Professor  Karl Zilles has been working on this model. This week, the project and its results were presented in the high-profile academic journal “Science.”


”The virtual three-dimensional brain is based on information from 7400 20-micrometer slices of a real human brain,” explains Senior Professor Karl Zilles from JARA-BRAIN, the joint brain research center between RWTH Aachen and Forschungszentrum Jülich. Each individual section of the brain was digitized with a high-resolution flatbed scanner and then computationally reconstructed for the 3-D brain model. The processing of the ultra-thin, fragile histological slices was a highly difficult and complex task.

According to the neuroscientist, who conducts research in Jülich and at the RWTH Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy und Psychosomatics at University Hospital Aachen, “cutting the ultra-thin sections, damage can be done, which must be removed from the digitized images with the help of modern image processing tools.” In order to process, reconstruct and analyze the gigantic data sets, the researchers have been using high-performance computers in Canada and Jülich.

Precise Representation Improves Diagnostics and Therapies

BigBrain helps us to gain new insights into both the healthy and the diseased brain, explains Professor Katrin Amunts, lead author and Director of the Institute Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine (INM-1) at Forschungszentrum Jülich. To give an example: Due to its development, the cerebral cortex is highly folded. For this reason, as Amunts explains, in some areas, the thickness of the cortex cannot be precisely determined using imaging techniques, such as magnetic resonance tomography.

The thickness of the cortex, however, changes over time, and also in the course of neurodegenerative processes such as Alzheimer’s disease. According to Amunts, “with the help of our high-resolution model of the brain, we can obtain new insights into the structure and measure several structural properties of different areas of the brain, such as the motor cortex, or an area which is important for learning and memory.” This possibilities will contribute to precisely detect and assess changes in the brains of patients.

JARA-BRAIN Combines Research and Clinical Application

In this way, JARA-BRAIN seeks to combine research with clinical application. The joint brain research center, where physicians, neuroscientists, physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists and other experts from both institutions collaborate in several international research projects, was established in 2007.

The insights gained in BigBrain will be made available to the “Human Brain Project,” HBP for short, in which scientists from both institutions parpticipate: This European large scale-scale project aims to develop, within a ten-year period, a detailed simulation model of the human brain on a supercomputer, representing the brain from the molecular level to the interaction of entire cell clusters.

Contact and Further Information

Univ.-Prof. Dr. med. Karl Zilles
University Hospital Aachen
Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy und Psychosomatics
Pauwelsstraße 30
52074 Aachen
Phone: +49 241 80 89633


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