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Mapping brain wiring

Dr Flavio Dell’Acqua

Download this image from Wellcome Collection.

Bundles of nerve fibres inside a healthy adult living human brain. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was used to virtually slice the brain into left and right halves; the front of the head faces the left side of the image. Information on this network of connections was collected by a type of MRI (diffusion imaging) that tracks the movement of water molecules. This was then used to digitally reconstruct these connections in the brain in the style of famous French neurologist Joseph Jules Dejerine’s 19th-century anatomical drawings. Distant regions of the brain communicate with each other through this network of fibres, which are being mapped to create tools for teaching and research. This brain measures approximately 18 cm from front to back.

Why is this work important?

These neuronal connections underpin brain function, so being able to see them and create digital models of them is vital in aiding our understanding of how the brain works in both normal health and disease. These bundles (or tracts) of nerve fibres form part of the white matter in the brain and travel to and from other parts of the central nervous system. To see these tracts non-invasively in a living human brain, a special type of MRI called diffusion imaging is used. Diffusion imaging measures water movement in many directions to reconstruct the orientation of the nerve fibres. By mapping this network of fibres, changes in these neural connections can be investigated in different conditions including autism, schizophrenia, stroke and visual perceptual disorders. Images and models such as these are being developed as a tool to teach neuroanatomy and to build atlases of the human brain.