Technology from Harry Potter movies allows scientists to study brain in detail


Two projects presented on Nov. 18 at the 2017 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in Washington D.C. showed that the technology used to create fantastic beasts, smoke and clouds in movies can also be used to alter neurons and brain structures in detail.

Tyler Ard, a neuroscientist in Arthur Toga’s lab at the University of Southern California, elaborated that “the same rendering techniques that are used to make graphics for Harry Potter movies” can be applied to MRI scans.

The methodology involved turning massive amounts of data into images. This is a necessity when trying to generate images of the brain given the complexity of and sheer number of data points involved in the project.

MRI scans are also referred to as magnetic resonance imaging scans. They involve using a giant magnet and radio waves in order to look at organs and structures within the body. They can be used to detect anything from torn ligaments to malignant tumors, but they are most often used to produce images of the brain and spinal cord.

MRIs generate many data points, and the methods illustrated by Ard can take this great number of points and turn them into images by simply entering them into a software program. Ard’s team intends to release the code that it used for the software freely so that other researchers can also utilize the program.

Another avenue of research Ard and his team are taking is combining the visualization software from their first project with virtual reality in order to explore the brain in three dimensions and even perform virtual dissections of the brain. This is especially useful in comparison to the past way of doing things, which was to take slices of a brain and analyze it. This was a precarious task that did not always produce optimal outcomes. However, the utilization of 3-D imaging allows researchers to bypass this route and instead take the less risky and much more accurate path.

This same technology of VRcan also be used to trace neurons. Scientists can don a VR headset and enter the microscopic world of neurons as determined by the scans. One millimeter of the human brain can pack up to 50,000 neurons, each one forming 6,000 connections with other neurons.

The traditional technique involved scrolling through 2-D images endlessly in order to find what the researcher is looking for. Now, with the headset and some handheld controllers, researchers can trace neuronal pathways in a way that allows for greater growth.

To test the system, four neuroanatomists, researchers who study the nervous system, expertly mapped and traced several labeled neuron image stacks. The tracings were as accurate as they used to be in 2-D images, but they were completed 1.7 times faster. The team plans to release the VR program for commercial interests within the year.

The projects shown this month exemplify the revolutionary side of science. They combine the areas of biology, physics, chemistry, math and computer science. This indicates a move towards the future that was not there before. Neurosurgery and neurology are becoming easier for scientists to assess, resulting in solutions to issues people may not even know exist right now.