"It Was Less Than a Grain of Rice, But We Began to Cut It, and It Was Really Beautiful." It Was a Piece of the Human Brain

"It Was Less Than a Grain of Rice, But We Began to Cut It, and It Was Really Beautiful." It Was a Piece of the Human Brain

A piece of the human brain, smaller than a grain of rice, sparked a profound discovery that's now making waves. In a groundbreaking collaboration between Harvard University and Google, a tiny brain sample revealed the intricacies of our most complex organ like never before.

Ten years ago, Professor Jeff Lichtman from Harvard's Molecular and Cellular Biology Department received this minuscule brain tissue, holding within it a world of mysteries. Despite its size, the sample contained a staggering 57,000 cells, 230 millimeters of blood vessels, and a mind-boggling 150 million synapses. "It was less than a grain of rice, but we began to cut it and look at it, and it was really beautiful. But as we were accumulating the data, I realized that we just had way, way more than we could handle," recalls Lichtman. As data piled up, it became clear: they had a monumental task on their hands.

Through meticulous slicing and imaging, Lichtman and his team amassed a staggering 1400 terabytes of data from the sample. This trove of information, equivalent to over a billion books, held the key to unraveling the secrets of the brain. The brain sample, sourced from a patient with epilepsy, underwent an intricate process of sectioning, staining, and imaging to reveal its hidden complexities.

What Was The Result?

A mesmerizing, interactive 3D model of brain tissue, meticulously reconstructed from over 300 million images. What's more, Google's advanced AI algorithms delved deep into the data, identifying cell types and connections with unprecedented precision. This collaboration culminated in the most detailed map of a human brain sample ever created, now accessible online as 'Neuroglancer.'

But this journey into the brain's inner workings unearthed more than just images—it sparked questions. Surprising discoveries, like neurons forming over 50 connections, left scientists pondering the brain's enigmatic complexities. For Lichtman, this map isn't just a scientific marvel; it's a gateway to understanding elusive brain disorders like never before. "The best we can do is describe it and hope that from those descriptions, we can see how normal brains differ from disordered brains," Lichtman explains.

Renderings by D. Berger (Harvard University) brian cells
© Renderings by D. Berger (Harvard University)

And the scientific community echoes this sentiment, hailing the project as a leap forward in neuroscience. Michael Bienkowski from USC lauds the study's potential to uncover what truly makes us human, while Andreas Tolias from Stanford praises its technical prowess. For Olaf Sporns from Indiana University, this map opens new vistas for understanding the brain's intricate networks and unlocking its deepest mysteries.

As we delve deeper into the brain's labyrinth, one thing becomes clear: this remarkable collaboration between academia and tech giants heralds a new era of discovery, one where the secrets of the human mind may finally be laid bare.