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Brain Images Just Got 64 Million Times Sharper

Apr. 18, 2023.
3 min. read 5 Interactions

Refined MRI provides an important new way to visualize the connectivity of the entire brain at record-breaking resolution

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Amara Angelica

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Amara Angelica is Senior Editor of Mindplex

A super-powerful MRI merged with light-sheet microscopy allows researchers to create a high-resolution wiring diagram of the entire brain in mice (credit: Duke Center for In Vivo Microscopy)

Duke’s Center for In Vivo Microscopy researchers* have now improved the resolution of MRI, leading to the highest-resolution images ever captured of an entire mouse brain.

The scans are dramatically crisper than a typical clinical MRI for humans — the scientific equivalent of going from a pixelated 8-bit graphic to the hyper-realistic detail of a painting. A single voxel (think of it as a cubic pixel) measures just 5 microns. That’s 64 million times smaller than a clinical MRI voxel.

Visualizing the connectivity of the entire brain

The refined MRI provides an important new way to visualize the connectivity of the entire brain at record-breaking resolution. The researchers say new insights from mouse imaging will in turn lead to a better understanding of conditions in humans, such as how the brain changes with age, diet, or even with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The team’s new work, appearing April 17 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the culmination of nearly 40 years of research at the Duke Center for In Vivo Microscopy.

Revolutionary MRI resolution

Over the four decades, Johnson, his engineering graduate students and his many collaborators at Duke and afar refined many elements that, when all combined, made the revolutionary MRI resolution possible.

Some of the key ingredients include a more powerful magnet (most clinical MRIs rely on a 1.5 to 3 Tesla magnet; Johnson’s team uses a 9.4 Tesla magnet), a special set of gradient coils that are 100 times stronger than those in a clinical MRI, and a high-performance computer equivalent to nearly 800 laptops.

Light sheet microscopy

After Johnson and his team scan the brain, they send off the tissue to be imaged using a different technique called light sheet microscopy. This complementary technique gives them the ability to label specific groups of cells across the brain, such as dopamine-issuing cells to watch the progression of Parkinson’s disease.

The team then maps the light sheet pictures, which give a highly accurate look at brain cells, onto the original MRI scan, which is much more anatomically accurate and provides a vivid view of cells and circuits throughout the entire brain.

One set of MRI images shows how brain-wide connectivity changes as mice age, as well as how specific regions, like the memory-involved subiculum, change more than the rest of the mouse’s brain. Another set showcases a spool of rainbow-colored brain connections that highlight the remarkable deterioration of neural networks in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease.

Better understanding of human diseases

The hope is that by making the MRI an even higher-powered microscope, Johnson and others can better understand mouse models of human diseases, such as Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and others. And that should lead to a better understanding of how similar things function or go awry in people.

“Research supported by the National Institute of Aging uncovered that modest dietary and drug interventions can lead to animals living 25% longer,” Johnson said. “So, the question is, is their brain still intact during this extended lifespan? Could they still do crossword puzzles? Are they going to be able to do Sudoku even though they’re living 25% longer? And we have the capacity now to look at it. And as we do so, we can translate that directly into the human condition.”

Citation: “Merged Magnetic Resonance And Light Sheet Microscopy Of The Whole Mouse Brain,” G. Allan Johnson et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 17, 2023. DOI:

*With colleagues at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, University of Pennsylvania, University of Pittsburgh and Indiana University

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One thought on “Brain Images Just Got 64 Million Times Sharper

  1. If the cost of imaging (without any review of the image) with current commercial MRI machines is tens of dollars rather than hundreds of dollars, might the value from scientific use of the image, in any scenario, exceed the costs? So could it be profitable for an individual to go through imaging regularly if the one-shot cost is X dollars and the generated value can be directed back to the person who contributed? Would the marginal benefit of an image increase or decrease with more people involved? What might the synergistic benefits be when combined with other biodata of the person? How much might an extra unit of resolution increase the value? Excited to see this technology scale up hopefully sooner than later.






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