A Woman's Brain Was Sliced Into 7,400 Pieces For Science

Microtome slicing sections of brain for 3-D BigBrain ProjectResearchers use a special tool called a microtome to cut sections from a brain preserved in paraffin wax into tiny slivers 20-micrometers thick. The researchers cut the brain into over 7,400 such sections. Each highly-folded section was stained to detect cell bodies.

Researchers have turned the brain of a 65-year-old woman into a freely available high-resolution 3-D interactive visualisation that will allow scientists to see every corner of the brain at the microscopic level, according to an announcement made in the journal Science on July 20.

While previous brain models only allowed viewers to see the visible brain, the so-called BigBrain model allows researchers to see clearly see details down to 20 microns (less than the width of a human hair).

The team of German and Canadian scientists affiliated with the European Brain Project used a brain donated by a 65-year-old woman for the project. They encased it in paraffin wax (the same substance used to make many candles) and sliced it into 7,400 extremely thin cross sections.

Screen Shot of BigBrainView the brain in 3-D with the BigBrain project.

They stained these cross sections to show brain structure, scanned them into a computer and reassembled them into a fully-coherent 3-D image, which you can navigate on your computer:The entire process took 1,000 hours of labour.

BigBrain is the work of the European Human Brain Project, and involved efforts by scientists in Germany and Canada.

“This allows us a completely new level of insight into the brain’s organisation,” study researcher Alan Evans, of McGill University, said during a press conference June 19. “So we’ve raised the level of insight, orders of magnitude beyond what was possible at the turn of the 20th Century. This data set will revolutionise our ability to understand internal brain organisation.”

The new model will allow scientists to study everything from how healthy brains develop to how brain diseases like Alzheimer’s progress.

BigBrain is available for free online, but you have to apply and be approved by the project team before you can use it. Here’s a preview of what it’s like to zoom through the brain:

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.