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The Virtual Human Brain

The brain is the foundation of behaviour and all mental activity. In humans, more than 50 billion neurons communicate with each other, forming a network of unimaginable complexity. The performance of each individual neuron depends on the molecular structures and mechanisms, as well as on its connections and spatial location in the brain.

At Forschungszentrum Jülich, scientists from various disciplines have joined forces, employing state-of-the-art imaging techniques such as structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), microanatomy and cell biology, genetics, along with the methods of physics and information science to better understand these relationships.

The aim of their research is to create a multi-dimensional virtual human brain that records structural aspects ranging from the molecule up to the complex system of functions in a spatial context.

Ultra thin tissue slices of the brain merely 20-millionths of a metre thick form the basis of the virtual brain. In the slices, the researchers identify each individual cell and numerous molecules that serve to transfer information. They then use modern image analysis methods to analyse them and thus, find out about the cell architecture and the distribution of functionally important molecules. Based on these data, they use a computer to reconstruct the three-dimensional brain structure and other dimensions related to the organization of the brain. In so doing, they also take the individual differences among human brains into account in what is referred to as a probabilistic brain map. In ten brains each, the scientists compare the location of a region that has been recorded and the variability of this region with respect to location and size.

In addition to the spatial division of the brain, the researchers also study how various regions interact as a system, i.e. how structure and function are interrelated. For the latter, they use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show which areas are currently active during certain activities and under certain impressions.

The results obtained may be accessed in our databases from anywhere in the world and are thus available to other teams of researchers. The multi-modal mind maps already available, and the virtual brain currently under development will support early diagnosis of neurological and psychiatric disorders and, in turn, enable early treatment. On this basis, the origin of diseases and effects of new types of therapy can be investigated and understood.