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Brain Images: New Techniques And Bright Colors

There are hundreds of billions of neurons in the human brain and trillions of connections between them. Such complexity is why the brain has remained largely a mystery, even after decades of research.

These 12 images show some of the cutting-edge techniques that scientists are using to try to solve this mystery.

Captions by Suzanne E. Jacobs, a science writer and former CommonHealth intern

This is a map of nerve fibers in the human brain. It was constructed using a special MRI scanning technique called diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI) that traces the direction of water flow. Water diffuses along the fatty sheaths around nerve fibers, rather than through them, so tracing water flow in the brain reveals this complex network of fibers. This image represents only a small portion of the neural connections in the brain. (Courtesy of Zeynep Saygin/Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

This is a map of nerve fibers in the human brain. It was constructed using a special MRI scanning technique called diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI) that traces the direction of water flow. Water diffuses along the fatty sheaths around nerve fibers, rather than through them, so tracing water flow in the brain reveals this complex network of fibers. This image represents only a small portion of the neural connections in the brain. (Courtesy of Zeynep Saygin/Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

These are cells in a developing rat brain. Neurons are labeled in red, and the connections between them are in green. This image was taken after 21 days of in vitro growth. (Courtesy of Neville Sanjana/McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT)

These are cells in a developing rat brain. Neurons are labeled in red, and the connections between them are in green. This image was taken after 21 days of in vitro growth. (Courtesy of Neville Sanjana/McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT)

This computer-generated model shows the connection between two neurons in a mouse retina. The image comes from an online game called EyeWire, a citizen-science effort that recruits volunteers from around the world to help build a three-dimensional map of the neural connections in a mouse eye.  Sebastian Seung -- a neuroscientist formerly at MIT and now at Princeton University -- launched the game in 2012. In this picture, the blue cell is known as a Ganglion cell, and the yellow cell is known as a Starburst Amacrine cell. The Seung Lab hypothesized in a recent paper that Starburst Amacrine cells are involved in detecting the direction of motion. (Courtesy of Alex Norton/EyeWire)

This computer-generated model shows the connection between two neurons in a mouse retina. The image comes from an online game called EyeWire, a citizen-science effort that recruits volunteers from around the world to help build a three-dimensional map of the neural connections in a mouse eye. Sebastian Seung — a neuroscientist formerly at MIT and now at Princeton University — launched the game in 2012. In this picture, the blue cell is known as a Ganglion cell, and the yellow cell is known as a Starburst Amacrine cell. The Seung Lab hypothesized in a recent paper that Starburst Amacrine cells are involved in detecting the direction of motion. (Courtesy of Alex Norton/EyeWire)

These are mouse neurons that researchers in Guoping Feng’s lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have stained to reveal a protein related to autism and other brain disorders. (Courtesy of Guoping Feng, Michael Wells/McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT)

These are mouse neurons that researchers in Guoping Feng’s lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have stained to reveal a protein related to autism and other brain disorders. (Courtesy of Guoping Feng, Michael Wells/McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT)

These are neurons in a mouse brain. The mouse has been genetically altered so its neurons express a protein that emits light when the neurons are active. (Courtesy of Guoping Feng,Louis Tee/McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT)

These are neurons in a mouse brain. The mouse has been genetically altered so its neurons express a protein that emits light when the neurons are active. (Courtesy of Guoping Feng,Louis Tee/McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT)

This is a part of a mouse brain called the dentate gyrus. It exists in the brain’s hippocampus, a region involved in memory formation. This mouse was genetically engineered to express fluorescent proteins of varying color combinations in its neurons. This labeling process, called Brainbow, allows scientists to more easily distinguish individual cells and connections in the brain. (Courtesy of Livet, Weissman, Sanes and Lightman/Harvard University)

This is a part of a mouse brain called the dentate gyrus. It is located in the brain’s hippocampus, a region involved in memory formation. This mouse was genetically engineered to express fluorescent proteins of varying color combinations in its neurons. This labeling process, called Brainbow, allows scientists to more easily distinguish individual cells and connections in the brain. (Courtesy of Livet, Weissman, Sanes and Lichtman/Harvard University)

This is a group of mouse axons: long projections that stem from neurons and carry electric impulses. These axons are bundled together to form a nerve. This mouse was genetically engineered to express fluorescent proteins of varying color combinations in its neurons. This labeling process, called Brainbow, allows scientists to more easily distinguish individual cells and connections in the brain. (Livet, Weissman, Sanes and Lightman/Harvard University)

This is a group of mouse axons: long projections that stem from neurons and carry electrical impulses. These axons are bundled together to form a nerve. This mouse was genetically engineered to express fluorescent proteins of varying color combinations in its neurons. This also used the Brainbow labeling process. (Livet, Weissman, Sanes and Lichtman/Harvard University)

This is the cross-section of a mouse cerebellum, a brain region involved in motor control. This mouse was genetically engineered to express fluorescent proteins of varying color combinations in its neurons. This labeling process, called Brainbow, allows scientists to more easily distinguish individual cells and connections in the brain. (Livet, Weissman, Sanes and Lightman/Harvard University)

This is the cross-section of a mouse cerebellum, a brain region involved in motor control. This mouse was genetically engineered to express fluorescent proteins of varying color combinations in its neurons.This also used the Brainbow labeling process. (Livet, Weissman, Sanes and Lichtman/Harvard University)

This image shows cells in a mouse brain. The black spots are neurons, and the colored cells between the neurons are astrocytes, the most abundant cell type in the brain. Among their many functions, astrocytes provide structural support to the brain, fuel neurons, and form the blood-brain barrier. This mouse was genetically engineered to express fluorescent proteins of varying color combinations in its neurons. This labeling process, called Brainbow, allows scientists to more easily distinguish individual cells and connections in the brain. (Livet, Weissman, Sanes and Lightman/Harvard University)

This image shows cells in a mouse brain. The black spots are neurons, and the colored cells between the neurons are astrocytes, the most abundant cell type in the brain. Among their many functions, astrocytes provide structural support to the brain, fuel neurons, and form the blood-brain barrier. This mouse was genetically engineered to express fluorescent proteins of varying color combinations in its neurons. This also used the Brainbow labeling process. (Livet, Weissman, Sanes and Lichtman/Harvard University)

These are cells in the brainstem of a mouse that was genetically engineered to express fluorescent proteins of varying color combinations in its neurons. This labeling process, called Brainbow, allows scientists to more easily distinguish individual cells and connections in the brain. (Livet, Weissman, Sanes and Lightman/Harvard University)

These are cells in the brainstem of a mouse that was genetically engineered to express fluorescent proteins of varying color combinations in its neurons. This also used the Brainbow labeling process. (Livet, Weissman, Sanes and Lichtman/Harvard University)

This is part of the brainstem of a mouse that was genetically engineered to express fluorescent proteins of varying color combinations in its neurons. This labeling process, called Brainbow, allows scientists to more easily distinguish individual cells and connections in the brain. (Livet, Weissman, Sanes and Lightman/Harvard University)

This is part of the brainstem of a mouse that was genetically engineered to express fluorescent proteins of varying color combinations in its neurons. This also used the Brainbow labeling process. (Livet, Weissman, Sanes and Lichtman/Harvard University)

This is a mouse brain that scientists made transparent using a new technique called CLARITY. First, they infused the brain with a gel that bound to the brain's proteins and held them in place. Then, the scientists flushed out all the opaque fatty tissue from the brains, leaving them structurally intact but transparent. Using this technique, scientists can study the three-dimensional structure of brains without having to cut them apart. (Courtesy of Deisseroth Lab at Stanford University)

This is a mouse brain that scientists made transparent using a new technique called CLARITY. First, they infused the brain with a gel that bound to the brain’s proteins and held them in place. Then, the scientists flushed out all the opaque fatty tissue from the brains, leaving them structurally intact but transparent. Using this technique, scientists can study the three-dimensional structure of brains without having to cut them apart. (Courtesy of Deisseroth Lab at Stanford University)

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