The human brain contains distinct geographic regions that communicate throughout the day to process information, such as remembering a neighbor’s name or deciding which road to take to work. Key to such processing is a vast network of densely bundled nerve fibers called tracts. It’s estimated that there are thousands of these tracts, and, because the human brain is so tightly packed with cells, they often travel winding, contorted paths to form their critical connections. That situation has previously been difficult for researchers to image three-dimensional tracts in the brain of a living person.
That’s now changing with a new approach called tractography, which is shown with the 3D data visualization technique featured in this video. Here, researchers zoom in and visualize some of the neural connections detected with tractography that originate or terminate near the hippocampus, which is a region of the brain essential to learning and memory. If you’re wondering about what the various colors represent, they indicate a tract’s orientation within the brain: side to side is red, front to back is green, and top to bottom is blue.
The video is the work of Tyler Ard, a neuroscientist in the NIH-supported lab of Arthur Toga at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. As Ard points out, tractography is far more than just cool 3D pictures of the brain’s wiring. The technique is a mainstay in the Human Connectome Project, which has set out to map the brain’s neural connections in their entirety. With further refinements, tractography could also one day be used for even more pinpoint imaging of the brain’s circuitry, potentially bringing greater precision to diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of neurological disorders.
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