Space & Innovation

Detailed, Digital Rat Brain Shows Individual Neurons

Ten-year project generates organic brain model with 31,000 neurons and 40 million synapses. Continue reading →

The concept of artificial intelligence has become a hot topic in recent years, both in the labs and at the movies. But if you've ever wondered what a digital brain would actually look like, well - wonder no more.

The image above, from the experimental biology journal Cell, is a virtual model of a particular section of a rat's brain. It's the product of a 10-year global initiative called the Blue Brain Project, whose ultimate goal is to create a complete digital simulation of the entire human brain.

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Hosted at the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) institute in Switzerland, the Blue Brain Project is taking a direct engineering approach to the challenge of creating a digital brain. The research team essentially took apart a slice of rat brain, then put it back together again using powerful supercomputers that can simulate the behavior of individual neurons.

The rat brain model - just a tiny slice of a tiny brain - contains more than 31,000 neurons, with 207 different neuron subtypes and 55 layers of cells. The virtual brain slice models the connectivity among all neurons, including 2,000 connections between each brain cell type and nearly 40 million synapses.

Of course, as any car mechanic can tell you, it's one thing to put together an engine - and another thing entirely to make it run. The Blue Brain model is more than just a map, it's an actual working simulation of an organic brain in which researchers can measure the electronic firing properties of neurons and the "circuit-level" behavior of brain wiring.

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The project represents a kind of first draft of what researchers hope will be much more ambitious reconstructions of rat brains, and eventually human brains. This first model focuses in on a slice of the brain's neocortex, an area that has been extensively mapped by other means, in previous research.

"The reconstruction required an enormous number of experiments," says EPFL lead researcher Henry Markram, "It paves the way for predicting the location, numbers, and even the amount of ion currents flowing through all 40 million synapses."

In case you want to get in the garage and noodle around with neocortical microcircuitry yourself this weekend, results from the study are now freely available to the scientific community at the Blue Brain Project portal site. Here's a little something to get you started - a rendering of an individual neuron with color-coded synapses.

The National Science Foundation recently announced the winners of its yearly image competition, where entries display a mix of art and science. Here are some of the highlights from the 2013 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge -- along with comments from the entrants. "Invisible Coral Flows" (above) reveal the hidden flow generated by small hairs (cilia) covering the surface of the coral, between two coral polyps that are 3 millimeters apart. Two shots taken 1.5 hours apart are combined into a single image, showing how the coral is able to create a long-lasting whirlpool structure that alters the local environment and enhances the coral's ability to "breathe."

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"Cortex in Metallic Pastels" represents a stylized section of the cerebral cortex, in which axons, dendrites and other features create a scene reminiscent of a copse of silver birch at twilight. An accurate depiction of a slice of cerebral cortex would be a confusing mess, says illustrator Greg Dunn, so he thins out the forest of cells, revealing the delicate branching structure of each neuron. Dunn combined his background in neuroscience and his love of Asian art, to create the sparse, striking illustrations of the brain.

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“Security Blanket” displays a word cloud of the 1,000 most common passwords in the social gaming website, RockYou. The passwords were sized according to their frequency and colored according to their theme. The most common -- "123456" -- was chosen by three times as many people as the next most popular password.

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In our war against bacteria, the microbes are winning. That somber message is writ large in this image of a human hand covered with

Pseudomonas

bacteria. Those colored green are resistant to antimicrobial treatment -- only a rare few are red, indicating that they have been vanquished.

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This image shows the microstructure of a 2-millimeter-long fragment of self-assembled polymers, which University of South Florida materials scientist Anna Pyayt is using to build miniature "lab-on-a-chip" devices for biomedical diagnostic applications.

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EyeWire is one of the fastest growing citizen science projects ever created. This game presents players with micrographs that show the neurons in a mouse's retina.

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The goal of EyeWire is to distinguish the twists and turns of a particular neuron in 3-D, in order to build up a complete map of the complex connections involved in vision.

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These exuberant starbursts shoot from the leaves of Deutzia scabra, a deciduous shrub sometimes known as "Pride of Rochester." Its leaves are covered with tiny hairs tipped by stars a quarter-millimeter across, giving it a fuzzy texture that Japanese woodworkers sometimes use for fine polishing.

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