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Human brain maps are a dime a dozen these days. Maps that detail neurons in a certain region. Maps that draw out functional connections between those cells. Maps that dive deeper into gene expression. Or even meta-maps that combine all of the above.
But have you ever wondered: how well do those maps represent my brain? After all, no two brains are alike. And if we’re ever going to reverse-engineer the brain as a computer simulation—as Europe’s Human Brain Project is trying to do—shouldn’t we ask whose brain they’re hoping to simulate?
Enter a new kind of map: the Julich-Brain, a probabilistic map of human brains that accounts for individual differences using a computational framework. Rather than generating a static PDF of a brain map, the Julich-Brain atlas is also dynamic, in that it continuously changes to incorporate more recent brain mapping results. So far, the map has data from over 24,000 thinly sliced sections from 23 postmortem brains covering most years of adulthood at the cellular level. But the atlas can also continuously adapt to progress in mapping technologies to aid brain modeling and simulation, and link to other atlases and alternatives.
In other words, rather than “just another” human brain map, the Julich-Brain atlas is its own neuromapping API—one that could unite previous brain-mapping efforts with more modern methods.
“It is exciting to see how far the combination of brain research and digital technologies has progressed,” said Dr. Katrin Amunts of the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine at Research Centre Jülich in Germany, who spearheaded the study.
The Old Dogma
The Julich-Brain atlas embraces traditional brain-mapping while also yanking the field into the 21st century.
First, the new atlas includes the brain’s cytoarchitecture, or how brain cells are organized. As brain maps go, these kinds of maps are the oldest and most fundamental. Rather than exploring how neurons talk to each other functionally—which is all the rage these days with connectome maps—cytoarchitecture maps draw out the physical arrangement of neurons.
Like a census, these maps literally capture how neurons are distributed in the brain, what they look like, and how they layer within and between different brain regions.
Because neurons aren’t packed together the same way between different brain regions, this provides a way to parse the brain into areas that can be further studied. When we say the brain’s “memory center,” the hippocampus, or the emotion center, the “amygdala,” these distinctions are based on cytoarchitectural maps.
Some may call this type of mapping “boring.” But cytoarchitecture maps form the very basis of any sort of neuroscience understanding. Like hand-drawn maps from early explorers sailing to the western hemisphere, these maps provide the brain’s geographical patterns from which we try to decipher functional connections. If brain regions are cities, then cytoarchitecture maps attempt to show trading or other “functional” activities that occur in the interlinking highways.
You might’ve heard of the most common cytoarchitecture map used today: the Brodmann map from 1909 (yup, that old), which divided the brain into classical regions based on the cells’ morphology and location. The map, while impactful, wasn’t able to account for brain differences between people. More recent brain-mapping technologies have allowed us to dig deeper into neuronal differences and divide the brain into more regions—180 areas in the cortex alone, compared with 43 in the original Brodmann map.
The new study took inspiration from that age-old map and transformed it into a digital ecosystem.
A Living Atlas
Work began on the Julich-Brain atlas in the mid-1990s, with a little help from the crowd.
The preparation of human tissue and its microstructural mapping, analysis, and data processing is incredibly labor-intensive, the authors lamented, making it impossible to do for the whole brain at high resolution in just one lab. To build their “Google Earth” for the brain, the team hooked up with EBRAINS, a shared computing platform set up by the Human Brain Project to promote collaboration between neuroscience labs in the EU.
First, the team acquired MRI scans of 23 postmortem brains, sliced the brains into wafer-thin sections, and scanned and digitized them. They corrected distortions from the chopping using data from the MRI scans and then lined up neurons in consecutive sections—picture putting together a 3D puzzle—to reconstruct the whole brain. Overall, the team had to analyze 24,000 brain sections, which prompted them to build a computational management system for individual brain sections—a win, because they could now track individual donor brains too.
Their method was quite clever. They first mapped their results to a brain template from a single person, called the MNI-Colin27 template. Because the reference brain was extremely detailed, this allowed the team to better figure out the location of brain cells and regions in a particular anatomical space.
However, MNI-Colin27’s brain isn’t your or my brain—or any of the brains the team analyzed. To dilute any of Colin’s potential brain quirks, the team also mapped their dataset onto an “average brain,” dubbed the ICBM2009c (catchy, I know).
This step allowed the team to “standardize” their results with everything else from the Human Connectome Project and the UK Biobank, kind of like adding their Google Maps layer to the existing map. To highlight individual brain differences, the team overlaid their dataset on existing ones, and looked for differences in the cytoarchitecture.
The microscopic architecture of neurons change between two areas (dotted line), forming the basis of different identifiable brain regions. To account for individual differences, the team also calculated a probability map (right hemisphere). Image credit: Forschungszentrum Juelich / Katrin Amunts
Based on structure alone, the brains were both remarkably different and shockingly similar at the same time. For example, the cortexes—the outermost layer of the brain—were physically different across donor brains of different age and sex. The region especially divergent between people was Broca’s region, which is traditionally linked to speech production. In contrast, parts of the visual cortex were almost identical between the brains.
The Brain-Mapping Future
Rather than relying on the brain’s visible “landmarks,” which can still differ between people, the probabilistic map is far more precise, the authors said.
What’s more, the map could also pool yet unmapped regions in the cortex—about 30 percent or so—into “gap maps,” providing neuroscientists with a better idea of what still needs to be understood.
“New maps are continuously replacing gap maps with progress in mapping while the process is captured and documented … Consequently, the atlas is not static but rather represents a ‘living map,’” the authors said.
Thanks to its structurally-sound architecture down to individual cells, the atlas can contribute to brain modeling and simulation down the line—especially for personalized brain models for neurological disorders such as seizures. Researchers can also use the framework for other species, and they can even incorporate new data-crunching processors into the workflow, such as mapping brain regions using artificial intelligence.
Fundamentally, the goal is to build shared resources to better understand the brain. “[These atlases] help us—and more and more researchers worldwide—to better understand the complex organization of the brain and to jointly uncover how things are connected,” the authors said.
Image credit: Richard Watts, PhD, University of Vermont and Fair Neuroimaging Lab, Oregon Health and Science University Continue reading
Welcome to the eighth edition of IEEE Spectrum’s Robot Gift Guide!
This year we’re featuring 15 robotic products that we think will make fantastic holiday gifts. As always, we tried to include a broad range of robot types and prices, focusing mostly on items released this year. (A reminder: While we provide links to places where you can buy these items, we’re not endorsing any in particular, and a little bit of research may result in better deals.)
If you need even more robot gift ideas, take a look at our past guides: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012. Some of those robots are still great choices and might be way cheaper now than when we first posted about them. And if you have suggestions that you’d like to share, post a comment below to help the rest of us find the perfect robot gift.
What makes robots so compelling is their autonomy, and the Skydio 2 is one of the most autonomous robots we’ve ever seen. It uses an array of cameras to map its environment and avoid obstacles in real-time, making flight safe and effortless and enabling the kinds of shots that would be impossible otherwise. Seriously, this thing is magical, and it’s amazing that you can actually buy one.
UBTECH Jimu MeeBot 2
The Jimu MeeBot 2.0 from UBTECH is a STEM education robot designed to be easy to build and program. It includes six servo motors, a color sensor, and LED lights. An app for iPhone or iPad provides step-by-step 3D instructions, and helps you code different behaviors for the robot. It’s available exclusively from Apple.
iRobot Roomba s9+
We know that $1,400 is a crazy amount of money to spend on a robot vacuum, but the Roomba s9+ is a crazy robot vacuum. As if all of its sensors and mapping intelligence wasn’t enough, it empties itself, which means that you can have your floors vacuumed every single day for a month and you don’t have to even think about it. This is what home robots are supposed to be.
Photo: Piaggio Fast Forward
Nobody likes carrying things, which is why Gita is perfect for everyone with an extra $3,000 lying around. Developed by Piaggio Fast Forward, this autonomous robot will follow you around with a cargo hold full of your most important stuff, and do it in a way guaranteed to attract as much attention as possible.
DJI Mavic Mini
It’s tiny, it’s cheap, and it takes good pictures—what more could you ask for from a drone? And for $400, this is an excellent drone to get if you’re on a budget and comfortable with manual flight. Keep in mind that while the Mavic Mini is small enough that you don’t need to register it with the FAA, you do still need to follow all the same rules and regulations.
LEGO Star Wars Droid Commander
Designed for kids ages 8+, this LEGO set includes more than 1,000 pieces, enough to build three different droids: R2-D2, Gonk Droid, and Mouse Droid. Using a Bluetooth-controlled robotic brick called Move Hub, which connects to the LEGO BOOST Star Wars app, kids can change how the robots behave and solve challenges, learning basic robotics and coding skills.
Robot pets don’t get much more sophisticated (or expensive) than Sony’s Aibo. Strictly speaking, it’s one of the most complex consumer robots you can buy, and Sony continues to add to Aibo’s software. Recent new features include user programmability, and the ability to “feed” it.
$2,900 (free aibone and paw pads until 12/29/2019)
Neato Botvac D4 Connected
The Neato Botvac D4 may not have all of the features of its fancier and more expensive siblings, but it does have the features that you probably care the most about: The ability to make maps of its environment for intelligent cleaning (using lasers!), along with user-defined no-go lines that keep it where you want it. And it cleans quite well, too.
$530 $350 (sale)
Cubelets Curiosity Set
Photo: Modular Robotics
Cubelets are magnetic blocks that you can snap together to make an endless variety of robots with no programming and no wires. The newest set, called Curiosity, is designed for kids ages 4+ and comes with 10 robotic cubes. These include light and distance sensors, motors, and a Bluetooth module, which connects the robot constructions to the Cubelets app.
Photo: Franklin Robotics
Tertill does one simple job: It weeds your garden. It’s waterproof, dirt proof, solar powered, and fully autonomous, meaning that you can leave it out in your garden all summer and just enjoy eating your plants rather than taking care of them.
Root was originally developed by Harvard University as a tool to help kids progressively learn to code. iRobot has taken over Root and is now supporting the curriculum, which starts for kids before they even know how to read and should keep them busy for years afterwards.
Let’s be honest: Nobody is really quite sure what LOVOT is. We can all agree that it’s kinda cute, though. And kinda weird. But cute. Created by Japanese robotics startup Groove X, LOVOT does have a whole bunch of tech packed into its bizarre little body and it will do its best to get you to love it.
RVR is a rugged, versatile, easy to program mobile robot. It’s a development platform designed to be a bridge between educational robots like Sphero and more sophisticated and expensive systems like Misty. It’s mostly affordable, very expandable, and comes from a company with a lot of experience making robots.
“How to Train Your Robot”
Image: Lawrence Hall of Science
Aimed at 4th and 5th graders, “How to Train Your Robot,” written by Blooma Goldberg, Ken Goldberg, and Ashley Chase, and illustrated by Dave Clegg, is a perfect introduction to robotics for kids who want to get started with designing and building robots. But the book isn’t just for beginners: It’s also a fun, inspiring read for kids who are already into robotics and want to go further—it even introduces concepts like computer simulations and deep learning. You can download a free digital copy or request hardcopies here.
MIT Mini Cheetah
Yes, Boston Dynamics’ Spot, now available for lease, is probably the world’s most famous quadruped, but MIT is starting to pump out Mini Cheetahs en masse for researchers, and while we’re not exactly sure how you’d manage to get one of these things short of stealing one directly for MIT, a Mini Cheetah is our fantasy robotics gift this year. Mini Cheetah looks like a ton of fun—it’s portable, highly dynamic, super rugged, and easy to control. We want one!
MIT Biomimetic Robotics Lab
For more tech gift ideas, see also IEEE Spectrum’s annual Gift Guide. Continue reading