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Harvard and Google Scientists Studying Connectomics Create Massive Highly Detailed 3D Nanoscale Model of Human Neural Tissue

Ten year collaboration between Google and Harvard may lead to a deeper understanding of the brain and new clinical laboratory diagnostics

With all our anatomic pathology and clinical laboratory science, we still do not know that much about the structure of the brain. But now, scientists at Harvard University and Google Research studying the emerging field of connectomics have published a highly detailed 3D reconstruction of human brain tissue that allows visualization of neurons and their connections at unprecedented nanoscale resolutions.

Further investigation of the nano-connections within the human brain could lead to novel insights about the role specific proteins and molecules play in the function of the brain. Though it will likely be years down the road, data derived from this study could be used to develop new clinical laboratory diagnostic tests.

The data to generate the model came from Google’s use of artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to color-code Harvard’s electron microscope imaging of a cubic millimeter of neural tissue—equivalent to a half-grain of rice—that was surgically removed from an epilepsy patient.

“That tiny square contains 57,000 cells, 230 millimeters of blood vessels, and 150 million synapses, all amounting to 1,400 terabytes of data,” according to the Harvard Gazette, which described the project as “the largest-ever dataset of human neural connections.”

“A terabyte is, for most people, gigantic, yet a fragment of a human brain—just a minuscule, teeny-weeny little bit of human brain—is still thousands of terabytes,” said neuroscientist Jeff W. Lichtman, MD, PhD, Jeremy R. Knowles Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, whose Lichtman Lab at Harvard University collaborated on the project with researchers from Google. The two labs have been working together for nearly 10 years on this project, the Harvard Gazette reported.

Lichtman’s lab focuses on the emerging field of connectomics, defined “as understanding how individual neurons are connected to one another to form functional networks,” said neurobiologist Wei-Chung Allen Lee, PhD, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School, in an interview with Harvard Medical News. “The goal is to create connectomes—or detailed structural maps of connectivity—where we can see every neuron and every connection.” Lee was not involved with the Harvard/Google Research study.

The scientists published their study in the journal Science titled, “A Petavoxel Fragment of Human Cerebral Cortex Reconstructed at Nanoscale Resolution.”

“The human brain uses no more power than a dim incandescent light bulb, yet it can accomplish feats still not possible with the largest artificial computing systems,” wrote Google Research scientist Viren Jain, PhD (above), in a blog post. “To understand how requires a level of understanding more profound than knowing what part of the brain is responsible for what function. The field of connectomics aims to achieve this by precisely mapping how each cell is connected to others.” Google’s 10-year collaboration with Harvard University may lead to new clinical laboratory diagnostics. (Photo copyright: Google Research.)

Study Data and Tools Freely Available

Along with the Science paper, the researchers publicly released the data along with analytic and visualization tools. The study noted that the dataset “is large and incompletely scrutinized,” so the scientists are inviting other researchers to assist in improving the model.

“The ability for other researchers to proofread and refine this human brain connectome is one of many ways that we see the release of this paper and the associated tools as not only the culmination of 10 years of work, but the beginning of something new,” wrote Google Research scientist Viren Jain, PhD, in a blog post that included links to the online resources.

One of those tools—Neuroglancer—allows any user with a web browser to view 3D models of neurons, axons, synapses, dendrites, blood vessels, and other objects. Users can rotate the models in xyz dimensions.

Users with the requisite knowledge and skills can proofread and correct the models by signing up for a CAVE (Connectome Annotation Versioning Engine) account.

Researchers Found Several Surprises

To perform their study, Lichtman’s team cut the neural tissue into 5,000 slices, each approximately 30 nanometers thick, Jain explained in the blog post. They then used a multibeam scanning electron microscope to capture high-resolution images, a process that took 326 days.

Jain’s team at Google used AI tools to build the model. They “stitched and aligned the image data, reconstructed the three dimensional structure of each cell, including its axons and dendrites, identified synaptic connections, and classified cell types,” he explained.

Jain pointed to “several surprises” that the reconstruction revealed. For example, he noted that “96.5% of contacts between axons and their target cells have just one synapse.” However, he added, “we found a class of rare but extremely powerful synaptic connections in which a pair of neurons may be connected by more than 50 individual synapses.”

In their Science paper, the researchers suggest that “these powerful connections are not the result of chance, but rather that these pairs had a reason to be more strongly connected than is typical,” Jain wrote in the blog post. “Further study of these connections could reveal their functional role in the brain.”

Mysterious Structures

Another anomaly was the presence of “axon whorls,” as Jain described them, “beautiful but mysterious structures in which an axon wraps itself into complicated knots.”

Because the sample came from an epilepsy patient, Jain noted that the whorls could be connected to the disease or therapies or could be found in all brains.

“Given the scale and complexity of the dataset, we expect that there are many other novel structures and characteristics yet to be discovered,” he wrote. “These findings are the tip of the iceberg of what we expect connectomics will tell us about human brains.”

The researchers have a larger goal to create a comprehensive high-resolution map of a mouse’s brain, Harvard Medical News noted. This would contain approximately 1,000 times the data found in the 1-cubic-millimeter human sample.

Dark Daily has been tracking the different fields of “omics” for years, as research teams announce new findings and coin new areas of science and medicine to which “omics” is appended. Connectomics fits that description.

Though the Harvard/Google research is not likely to lead to diagnostic assays or clinical laboratory tests any time soon, it is an example of how advances in technologies are enabling researchers to investigate smaller and smaller elements within the human body.

—Stephen Beale

Related Information:

Researchers Publish Largest-Ever Dataset of Neural Connections

A Petavoxel Fragment of Human Cerebral Cortex Reconstructed at Nanoscale Resolution

Ten Years of Neuroscience at Google Yields Maps of Human Brain

Groundbreaking Images Reveal the Human Brain at Nanoscale Resolution

A New Field of Neuroscience Aims to Map Connections in the Brain