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Spectrum: Autism Research News

Opinion Conversations on the science of autism research.

What’s the best route to a brain map?

by  /  8 July 2013

This article is more than five years old. Autism research - and science in general - is constantly evolving, so older articles may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.

After ten years of painstakingly cutting and digitally stitching together thousands of slices of tissue, a team of researchers has created the most detailed three-dimensional (3D) rendering of the brain yet.

Read the full article here » 

The new map, known as the BigBrain atlas, reveals a detailed anatomical view of the brain almost to the cellular level, boasting 50 times the resolution of previous 3D models. The model is the first to show connections between groups of neurons, where many researchers believe the dysfunction driving autism may arise.

However, its utility for studying a heterogeneous disorder such as autism is limited. The map comes from a single healthy brain, that of a 65-year-old woman with no apparent neurological diseases.

With the first iteration completed, however, some researchers, such as John Mazziotta, director of the University of California, Los Angeles Brain Mapping Center, say that they expect the building of BigBrain maps to become more efficient over time. If so, the process could be used to look at the brains of large groups of people with disorders such as autism on a molecular level.

But as Ricardo Dolmetsch points out in our article, such a resource-dependent approach may not be the best way forward to capture autism’s heterogeneity.

The BigBrain team is not the only venture of its kind. The many big-science projects dedicated to such goals — from the Human Connectome Project to Europe’s billion-euro Human Brain Project — also aim to create detailed maps of the brain and its connections.

The ultimate usefulness of such maps may lie in how you slice them. Or don’t slice them.

For instance, another new technique for generating precise neuronal detail revealed earlier this year, called CLARITY, renders brain tissue transparent, eliminating the need to cut the brain at all. But so far it can only be applied to an area about the size of a mouse brain.

Others hope to work around the challenge of mapping the brain’s 100 billion neuronsand trillions of connections bycrowdsourcing the required resources.

What do you think?                                                             

  • Given the resources put into generating the first BigBrain atlas — ten years, 1,000 hours of manual slicing, a grid of supercomputers spread across Canada — is it realistic to think this technique could be made efficient enough for the numbers required for studying autism? Would it be worth the effort?

  • Where is the smart money? What approaches to whole-brain modeling do you expect to have the largest impact on autism research in the next five to ten years?

  • What level of detail is needed to get an accurate picture of what is going wrong in the brains of people with autism?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below. Or, to dig deeper, continue the conversation in the moderated SFARI Forum for researchers. Not yet a member? Learn how to register here.

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