Histologically historic

An article on new methods in neurology includes a dramatic finding. The headline about maps of connections is NOT the dramatic part. Maps won’t really help, and maps of a meaningful part of the brain are mathematically unachievable. Most of the action happens in the resonant waves, which are only partly carried on the mappable connections.

Here’s the historic part:

The tissue, about the size of a pinhead, had been preserved, stained with heavy metals, cut into 5,000 slices and imaged under an electron microscope. This cubic millimeter of tissue accounts for only one-millionth of the entire human brain. Yet the vast trove of data depicting it comprises 1.4 petabytes’ worth of brightly colored microscopy images of nerve cells, blood vessels and more.


“It is like discovering a new continent,” said Jeff Lichtman of Harvard, the senior author of the paper that presented these results. He described a menagerie of puzzling features that his team had already spotted in the human tissue, including new types of cells never seen in other animals, such as neurons with axons that curl up and spiral atop each other and neurons with two axons instead of one.

Neurologists have been observing and drawing and photographing neurons for more than 200 years. The earliest microscopes were good enough to see the overall shape of a neuron. Electron microscopes and computerized scans weren’t needed for this level of detail. Despite centuries of careful observation, these forms of neurons weren’t seen before.

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Semi-relevant but interesting: The Quanta article itself has a feature I haven’t seen before. Instead of showing MP4s or GIFs of the scanning process, it loads the 3d mesh directly and lets you rotate it by hand. The action doesn’t seem to be happening at the HTML level; the HTML for the page doesn’t call on a 3d viewer like OpenGL in the reader’s own computer. It must be happening in Quanta’s website with interactive commands.

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