Humans have charted longitude and latitude lines that stretch
across the ends of the earth. There remains, however, a final
frontier which has yet to be mapped: an extremely complex lump of
gray matter known as the human brain.
The UCLA Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center and the
Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at UCLA have been working on a joint
project to create a navigation system for the brain.
“Currently, locations of the brain are descriptive,”
said John Mazziotta, chair of the UCLA Department of Neurology and
director of the Brain Mapping Center.
“It would be like the pilot (of a plane) saying,
“˜Looks like we’re over Cape Cod,'”
Mazziotta said. “What we really need is (the) latitude and
longitude of the brain that quantifies where things are.”
Started at UCLA in 1993, the International Consortium for Brain
Mapping grew to include a multi-disciplinary team of
neurobiologists and computer scientists, all hoping to create the
ultimate image of the human brain.
The full-color, animated image can be rotated at all angles and
“warped” to match any description.
Brains of thousands of people were scanned and collected in
eight laboratories across the world, along with a record of their
medical, genetic, ethnic, educational and psychological
The majority of these scans were made at the Brain Mapping
Center and then compiled into a database at LONI. These brain scans
are labeled and broken up into parts with reference to a detailed
“What we want to do is to be able to take any brain and
carve it up into its named parts,” Mazziotta said.
“A software (program) warps your brain to match a template
brain “¦ it picks up all the labels automatically.”
A database of these detailed maps of individual brains is
already available on the Web to some researchers and
Upon completion of all 7,000 scans within the next two years,
the database will be the most complete ““ and a much needed
““ reference on the structure of the human brain.
“It is a map of the brain that could be used to represent
different subpopulations,” said Arthur Toga, head of LONI and
a professor of neurology at UCLA.
“The map accommodates the variability across humanity:
right-handers versus left-handers, men versus women,” he
A researcher can type a query into the database, and he would be
able to view a detailed, labeled image of an average brain
representative of the requested population.
The massive amounts of data are held at LONI, within a
one-of-a-kind supercomputer the size of a room. The data is
monitored and retrieved by a large robot containing thousands of
gigabytes of information.
Brain scans of different individuals categorized in the same
population would undoubtedly vary from one scan to the next ““
just as individuals within the population vary.
Through a process called deformation correction, an average
brain image can be produced for any type of patient groups, ranging
from a female patient with seizures, to a 7 year-old boy with
dyslexia, to a healthy left-handed male at the age of 30.
“(Deformation correction) warps the images to make them
look the same,” Toga said.
“The very act of doing so tells me how different (the
original images) were.”
Probabilities are then calculated to account for the variability
and the result is a “master brain” representative of
Once the images are generated, they can be compared: the brain
of a young population can be compared to that of an aged
population; a healthy brain can be compared to an injured
With these comparisons, locations in the brain and the different
lobes of the brain can be more specifically linked to their
In order to accomplish this massive brainwarping database,
several problems have to be solved.
“There is no point in time that the brain is the same from
the day you’re born to the day you die,” Toga said.
“So a map of the brain has to be constantly changing and
dynamic.Â It has to be four-dimensional.”
With UCLA at the center of the hub, the ICBM’s team of
scientists continues to tackle this moving target of gray cells and
The evolution of the brain through time can be captured with the
database by comparing the brain scans of a younger member to an
older member of a population.
Another way to address the dynamic properties of the brain is to
scan individuals repeatedly within a period of several years,
capturing images of their brain through its phases of
Applications of the database to the fields of neuroscience,
neurosurgery and neurogenetics are vast.
The data collected provides valuable information for the
recognition and diagnosis of diseases that affect the brain such as
Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.
Maps can be made of the natural evolution and development of a
human brain from birth to death.
“For our patients with traumatic brain injuries, we would
have a better reflection of how much the anatomy has changed; how
much shrinkage in the brain due to injury is significant, “
said David Hovda, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience and
director of the Brain Injury Research Center.
The database, when completed, will provide a reference and a
system of communication for all the fields of brain science.
Funding for the project was provided by the National Institute
for Health and other sources, totaling just under $20 million.
The project itself is open-ended.
“Just like maps of the earth described through satellite
imagery, you keep adding more to it due to increased population or
smog,” Toga said.
“These are continually evolving and maturing
Brain scientists are eagerly awaiting the result.
“It’s a breakthrough in data management; taking this
immense amount of data and bringing it together and analyzing it on
all these different variables … is a heroic task,” Hovda