June 18, 2016 - 9:00 PM
TORONTO - When it comes to understanding human anatomy, the brain remains perhaps the most studied structure in the body, yet the least understood. How exactly does it work? And why do some people develop neurological disorders — from autism to Alzheimer's — while others do not?
Increasingly, scientists are turning to advanced computational technology as a means of unlocking the secrets of mankind's central processor, that "three-pound" mass of wrinkly tissue that resides within our heads.
"I think we're in transition in society where we're surrounded by the information revolution on all sides, obviously with Facebook and iPhones, and so information and computation is coming to every aspect of our lives," said Dr. Alan Evans, a professor of neurology and neuroscience at McGill University and a researcher at the Montreal Neurological Institute.
"And neuroscience is no different."
Evans' research lab is among those at the international forefront of programs to digitally map the human brain, including one known as the BigBrain Project first announced in 2013.
BigBrain, a computerized 3D neurological map based on the brain of a deceased 65-year-old man, provides a spatial resolution of 20 microns — 50 times more refined than previously existing reference brains available for scientific study.
On Wednesday, McGill announced its researchers had been given a major boost in their efforts to peer even closer into the depths of the brain with the donation of $1 million in state-of-the-art visualization and data-storage technology from EMC Corp.
"With that one project, the BigBrain alone, we're operating at about 20 microns, which is about half the width of a human hair," Evans said from Montreal, noting that the new technology will allow much greater resolution.
"If we go down to 10 times smaller — about two microns — we will be able to see individual brain cells."
BigBrain is one of several brain-study projects at McGill that will take advantage of the amplification of computational power and big-data storage, the results of which will be shared with scientists around the world.
The researchers will bring together different kinds of data gleaned from brain imaging, genetics and psychological testing of various groups of people to better understand the normal, healthy brain versus those affected by neurological disorders throughout the various stages of life.
"We want to combine all of this information to study the brain, variations among individuals, child brain development, neurodegeneration in older people, such as those with Alzheimer's disease," said Evans.
"It's a general strategy for bringing computer science information to the study of the brain," he said, and also a step toward more personalized medicine.
With Alzheimer's, for instance, the technology can help researchers combine and analyze a variety of factors: whether a patient has genetic markers for developing the disorder; how their brain structure appears at ultra-high resolution; and whether they have any buildup of toxic proteins that herald the destruction of neurons — a key hallmark of the disease.
"And the point about that is we can then start to take a cohort of people with Alzheimer's disease and stratify them into subgroups and sub-subgroups and have a much better understanding of, for instance, who might be a responder to a particular pharmaceutical intervention and who will not."
Such knowledge could also one day allow doctors to pick up the signs of the progressive neurodegenerative disease much earlier — "maybe decades earlier," said Evans. "If you have enough metrics, you can say this person is going down the wrong path.
"That kind of information only becomes clear if you have enough data to really discriminate one brain from another."
Mike Sharun, country manager for EMC Canada, said the technology provided to McGill will allow researchers worldwide to store, protect, share and analyze their most valuable asset: information.
"What we hope for from this is that we help promote research so that we get cures for diseases quicker," said Sharun, adding that as a world-class "neurohub," McGill also will attract and retain top scientists, "keeping the brains in Canada ... rather than going elsewhere."
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News from © The Canadian Press, 2016