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Presenting the most comprehensive map of the human brain

The Allen Institute's brain atlas is intended to be a new standard resource for researchers.
Sean Buckley, @seaniccus
September 15, 2016
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Ask a neurologist -- as far as brains go, humanity has one of the largest and most complex thinking muscles on the planet. That's why researchers have never really had a good atlas of the human brain's underlying structure. According to the Allen Institute, documentation on the model of the human brain is so outdated, that it's still commonplace for scientists to reference mappings from almost a century ago. Well, at least it was: the Institute has just published what it says is the highest resolution atlas of the human brain, one it hopes will become a new standard resource for brain researchers.

Officially, the atlas has been published in a stand-alone issue of the Journal of Comparative Neurology, but the Allen Human Brain Reference Atlas is also available as a free resource on the institute's website. It's more than a handful of MRIs -- the institute put a 34-year old donor brain through magnetic resonance and diffusion tensor imaging before methodically cutting it into slabs to perform histological staining specific regions. This data was all recorded, imaged, digitized and mapped to create an atlas with 862 annotated structures. That mouthful, in other words, means the group has put together a comprehensive, high-resolution map of the human brain that scientists can reference during research.

Perhaps as important as the work itself is the way in which it is presented. "The Allen Human Brain Reference Atlas represents a further departure from the classical atlases in its innovative publication format," explained Patrick Hof, M.D. in the Atlas' announcement. "It is the only brain atlas to date to combine the rigor of a peer-reviewed scientific research paper with a presentation as a book format that includes the full set of annotated plates, open-access online availability of the resource with the ability to navigate and explore the details of any given area, and have programmatic access to the underlying data."

The project helps bring human brain atlas' to a new standard -- bringing it closer to the comprehensive brain maps scientists had for worms, mice and other smaller creatures. With any luck, the atlas will provide researchers with the tools needed to better understand our most important organ.

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