Animal Brains, More Beautiful Than You Could Ever Imagine

More than just eye candy, these images are teaching scientists new insights into how the brain is organized

Martinos Center For Biomedical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital

Information Superhighway

(Martinos Center For Biomedical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital)

Neurons in the brain zip messages to one another along long white fibers called axons. Previously scientists traced axon pathways in dissected animal brains, but now they can see the structure of this amazing information superhighway in a living human organ. Using new software with a technique called “diffusion tensor MRI” that tracks water molecules as they move along the axons, Van Wedeen of Massachusetts General Hospital and colleagues found that the fibers are arranged in a surprisingly regular 3-D grid. For instance, the red axons in the image converge on the purple pathway at a 90-degree angle. Axons are interwoven like “the warp and weft of a fabric,” the researchers say, with the pattern bent along the brain’s convolutions. “It’s really pretty, all the little loops and folds,” Wedeen says.

Rhesus Monkey Brain

diffusion spectrum MRI
(Martinos Center For Biomedical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital)

The technique Wedeen and colleagues use is called "diffusion spectrum MRI," a variation on an existing technique. By monitoring how water moves along axons and at what angle these brain fibers cross one another, the researchers found a surprisingly geometric pattern. The three-dimensional grid is visible in this detail from a rhesus monkey brain.

Beautiful Primate Axons

rhesus monkey
(Martinos Center For Biomedical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital)

This image from a rhesus monkey shows the larger-scale structure of the grid of axons as they swoop and swirl through the convolutions of the primate's brain.

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