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Scientists just drafted an incredibly detailed map of the human brain

Published in Brain Architecture & Maps.

A massive suite of papers offers a high-res view of the human and non-human primate brain.

By Cassandra Willyard
October 12, 2023

This article first appeared in The Checkup, MIT Technology Review’s weekly biotech newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Thursday, and read articles like this first, sign up here.

When scientists first looked at brain tissue under a microscope, they saw an impenetrable and jumbled mess. Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience, likened the experience to walking into a forest with a hundred billion trees, “looking each day at blurry pieces of a few of those trees entangled with one another, and, after a few years of this, trying to write an illustrated field guide to the forest,” according to the authors of The Beautiful Brain, a book about Cajal’s work.

Today, scientists have a first draft of that guide. In a set of 21 new papers published across three journals, the teams report that they’ve developed large-scale whole-brain cell atlases for humans and non-human primates. This work, part of the National Institutes of Health BRAIN Initiative, is the culmination of five years of research. “It’s not just an atlas,” says Ed Lein, a neuroscientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and one of the lead authors. “It’s really opening up a whole new field, where you can now look with extremely high cellular resolution in brains of species where this typically hasn’t been possible in the past.”

Welcome back to The Checkup. Let’s talk brains.

What is a brain atlas, and what makes this one different?

A brain atlas is a 3-D map of the brain. Some brain atlases already exist, but this new suite of papers provides unprecedented resolution of the whole brain for humans and non-human primates. The human brain atlas includes the location and function of more than 3,000 cell types in adult and developing individuals. “This is far and away the most complete description of the human brain at this kind of level, and the first description in many brain regions,” Lein says. But it’s still a first draft.