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In this axial reconstruction, the MRI sees ever-deeper layers of the brain, from top to bottom and back up again.

Scientists are very careful about claiming that no one else has ever done something before — the last thing they need is some overlooked lab saying, um, right here! — but researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital are confident they’re on solid ground. Their high-resolution MRIs of a complete, intact human brain, they say, are “unprecedented.”

Other labs have sliced up brains and seen features down to 80 or even 50 microns. (One micron is a 10,000th of a centimeter, and 75 of them is about the width of a human hair.) The MGH team got 100-micron resolution in a whole brain, producing the most detailed three-dimensional images of an intact brain ever seen.


Super high res brain
Detailed anatomy of brainstem structures, including (at far right) the inferior olivary nucleus, which coordinates movement.

The scientists started with an MRI machine with a 7-tesla magnet, a significantly stronger magnetic field than the 0.5-to-3 teslas of most MRIs in clinical use, which optimized the signal-to-noise ratio. But they also built custom state-of-the-art software that, depending which physics parameters it directs the MRI to optimize, reveals particular features of the tissue, from tiny bleeds to swelling to white and gray matter.

In this video of a coronal view, the MRI reconstructs brain layers from the forehead to the back of the head.

It didn’t hurt that the brain — from a 58-year-old woman who bequeathed it to science before her death from viral pneumonia three years ago — could stay in the MRI for 100 hours and was perfectly immobile.

Super high res brain
Detailed anatomy of the basal ganglia and midbrain (center) and cerebellum (left).

The researchers, led by MGH’s Dr. Brian Edlow, described their work in a paper submitted to a journal, and while they await publication, they have shared the images, which were taken at four different angles.

In this video showing sagittal views of the brain, the MRI captures layers from the left side to the right.
  • Profound and immediate changes (cell swelling, cytoplasmic membrane blebbing, intracellular organelle distortions especially mitochondrial and nuclear, intra and extra cellular fluid shifts, to name a few) happen within seconds and definitely within minutes of brain death. By light and electron microscopy – the next stages in higher power resolution- these images are even greater distortions of living reality. I don’t see the point of this extra effort and no doubt expense compared to lower resolution images.

  • I am confused about the claim. Does ‘slicing up’ a brain refer to microscope sections? In that case the resolution is 10 microns (the width of a red blood cell) or less by plain light microscopy. If it is another imaging technique and the resolution is truly 50-80 microns, then this is still better than the 100 microns allegedly claimed in the study.

    • Some labs have produced images of sections of the brain with resolutions down to 50 microns. But this lab has produced the most resolute imaging of the entire brain, of 100 microns. The 50-80 microns were only partial areas of the brain, I am assuming.

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