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Brain pathways mapped in unprecedented detail

Brain pathways mapped in unprecedented detail
4th June 2015

Scientists have produced a 3-D map of the human brain stem using MRI technology. Displaying an unprecedented level of detail, it is hoped the achievement will help guide surgeons using deep brain stimulation (DBS) to treat conditions such as Parkinson's disease.

It is also hoped that the technique they used can be harnessed to produce more detailed maps of other areas of the brain, thereby contributing to the successful treatment of other neurodegenerative diseases.

"On the conventional MRI that we take before surgery, the thalamus looks like a grey mass where you can see only the borders," explained one of the paper's authors, neurosurgeon Dr Nandan Lad, director of the Duke NeuroOutcomes Center. 

"Now we will have actual detail. With this map, for the first time we're able to see the thalamus and that underlying circuitry that we are modulating."

The model should make significant headway into eliminating trial and error when carrying out procedures such as implanting electrodes during DBS.

To produce the map, the scientists took a ten-day scan of a healthy donor's postmortem brain stem. This was done using a 7-Tesla MRI system, before the result was converted into a 3-D model.

The model is more than just a static map. Indeed, it can be proportionally scaled to fit a patient's unique brain anatomy, further helping to increase accuracy and reduce risk in procedures like DBS.

Stressing the significance of the achievement, lead author of the paper Dr Evan Calabrese said: "We now have a guide to be able to visualise these complex neuronal connections that would otherwise be impossible to see. This will help us continue to explore applications for treatments of Alzheimer's disease, neuropathic pain, depression and even obsessive compulsive disorders."

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