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Fantastic voyage: Stanford researcher offers a virtual flight through the brain

"A single human brain has more switches than all the computers, routers and Internet connections on Earth," said Stephen J. Smith, PhD, a Stanford professor of molecular and cellular physiology, as he took a Macworld audience on a breathtaking HD video tour of the most amazing computer of all -- the brain.

The audience was clearly moved by the beauty of the short film, which takes viewers on a virtual flight through the cerebral cortex of a mouse. "The finished product, titled Synaptaesthesia, was stunning," Mauricio Grijalva wrote yesterday in a Macworld piece.

Smith and his team have pioneered a method for directly observing brain circuit development, structure and function called "array tomography." Developed by a consortium of neuroscientists, computer scientists, and lab technicians from Stanford, Harvard, and MIT, this technique opens up a window on the brain that will provide researchers with insights on how to diagnose and treat neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's. (Smith's website also features an animated video of a human brain with Alzheimer's disease.)

While the techie Macworld audience was primarily interested in the how-to aspects of the film -- how his team combined electron microscopy, specialized fluorescent molecules from jellyfish, high-resolution photography, super computers and Apple Computer technologies to create the final animation -- Smith also explained why he believes the film is so emotionally appealing:

Human beings are hardwired to love the sight of trees because our evolutionary ancestors survived in trees. The brain is a vast forest of hundreds of billions of tree-shaped neurons -- what could be more beautiful? Modern physics and computation have finally given us the ability to glimpse this beauty.

Previously: New imaging method developed at Stanford reveals stunning details and Visualizing the brain as a universe of synapses


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