Drawing a “Google Maps” for the brain

Are you old enough to remember to carry a paper map with you? Have you wondered what happened to MapQuest? Although these tools have not disappeared at all, they have long been overshadowed by Google Maps. But have you ever wondered why?

The now ubiquitous navigation tool is actually a compilation of many different maps that include satellite data, topography, transit lines, cycling infrastructure, traffic and more. A multi-layered map like this can help you find the shortest route to bike to work while also allowing you to examine the change in surface elevation to avoid steep inclines. You can even use Street View to inspect individual roads and intersections to see how safe they are for cyclists. In short, aligning different types of cards allows you to discover new structural and functional relationships that help you get to where you need to be faster and more efficiently.

What would be possible if we had a map like this for the brain? Recently, researchers funded by Healthy Brain, Healthy Lives of The Neuro (Institut Neurologique-Hôpital de Montréal) published work in Natural methods which takes a big step towards the realization of this idea. This effort stems from the Helmholtz International BigBrain Analytics & Learning Laboratory (HIBALL) initiative combining neuroscience and artificial intelligence to build highly detailed 3D models of the brain at the cellular level.

Using open data from publicly available repositories like GitHub and researchers using neuroimaging in their work, Bratislav Misic, PhD and Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, and his team created Neuromaps – a open source software tools to contextualize maps of the human brain. Neuromaps currently hosts over forty such maps, covering features ranging from metabolic and functional activity to the distribution of different cell surface receptors in the brain.

The goal of the project was to make it easier for neuroscientists to compare brain maps from various fields of study that present data at different scales and that were created using different imaging techniques. These maps cannot be compared directly, and researchers must transform the data mathematically when desired. Think of it like trying to plot your cycling route using a street map and a relief globe; how would you determine where to expect that steep hill?

Neuromaps creates a common digital “space” that allows different maps to be aligned with each other and compared. It also provides tools to analyze the statistical significance of these map-to-map comparisons. Now any researcher can generate a brain map from their own data and compare it to a library of other types of data from published literature to gain new insights and make groundbreaking discoveries. It also provides a standardized, open-source neuroinformatics pipeline to help scientists work more efficiently and achieve reproducible results.

What types of results? Researchers in Misic’s lab have already discovered new associations between different neurotransmitter receptors and things like brain structure, neurological activity and neuropsychiatric disorders. This work could open the door to the development of new transformative treatments and therapies, and it allows researchers to study brain organization at multiple levels.

Learn more about the group’s work on the lab’s website and be sure to check out the latest issue of Natural methods to know everything about Neuromaps.

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