Mapping the most complex object in the known universe

It's paint-by-numbers for neuroscientists. At the Max-Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany, researchers have devised a faster way of computing the neural connections that make up the brain. Mapping out this intricate web previously depended on the human eye as no computer was powerful enough to handle the brain's complex network of 70 billion neurons and thousands of kilometres of circuits. For this gargantuan task, even the smallest sliver of neural tissue was painstaking, demanding an experienced team to make modest progress.

Now with the help of two computer programs, Moritz Helmstaedter, Kevin Briggman and Winfried Denk have developed a faster and more accurate way of completing this neural cartography.

The first program, KNOSSOS - named after an ancient palace labyrinth in Crete - lets untrained users visualise and annotate 3D image data while the second, RESCOP summarises their work. In a test of this method, a team of 70 students created a detailed rendering of the connections between more than 100 retinal neurons in a mouse. Pictured above, the reconstruction outlines the dense bundles their projections form to receive input from photoreceptors.

The new programs could make the difficult but vital task of plotting out the brain's neural circuitry possible.

Journal reference: Nature Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1038/nn.2868

Image: MPI for Medical Research. This post orginally appeared on New Scientist.