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All data – big and small – informs large-scale neuroscience project

The thought of gaining access to data from thousands of brains would make most neuroscientists salivate. But now, a team of Stanford and Oxford researchers is able to do just that. Led by Jennifer McNab, PhD, assistant professor of radiology, the group compares magnetic resonance images from as many as 100,000 people with in-depth 3-D scans developed using CLARITY, a technique developed at Stanford that visualizes intact tissue.

"This is a tremendous resource in terms of scientists being able to look and see who develops a particular disease and who does not and why that may be," McNab said in the video above.

Her team — which includes Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD; Michael Zeineh, MD, PhD and Michael Greicius, MD, MpH — is tapping the U.K. Biobank, which has about 500,000 participants. It also uses data from the NIH Human Connectome Project, which could include up to 1,200 MRI images. The project received a 2014 Big Data for Human Health Seed Grant and is part of Stanford Medicine's Biomedical Data Science Initiative (BDSI), which strives to make powerful transformations in human health and scientific discovery by fostering innovative collaborations among medical researchers, computer scientists, statisticians and physicians.

The project uses two distinct types of "big data." The large databases with hundreds of entries clearly falls under this umbrella, but even one dataset from CLARITY, which produces extremely high-resolution images, produces big data, she said.

The project may make it possible to glean more diagnostic information from MRIs, McNab said. "Then we can hopefully develop early biomarkers of disease that will ultimately help to guide treatment plans and preventative measures," she said.

This project offers just a glimpse at the potential of data science. For more on important work being done in this area, mark your calendars for Stanford's Big Data in Biomedicine conference May 20-22. More information is available here.

Previously: Registration for the Big Data in Biomedicine Conference now open, How CLARITY offers an unprecedented 3-D view of the brain's neural structure and Euan Ashley discusses harnessing big data to drive innovation for a healthier world

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