Creating a Spatial View of the Brain

Mark Altaweel


We often think of complex, large spatial science projects as relating to large-scale phenomena such as mapping global-scale climate or land use land cover change across continents. While this is true, increasingly mapping far smaller scale but complex organs such as the human brain is requiring new technologies and spatial modeling to be developed.

In 2016, one of the most detailed mapped of the human brain was released.[1] Now, the Human Brain Project hopes to create an even more detailed understanding of the brain. The Human Brain project, a 10-year European Union funded endeavor, is tackling not only mapping the human brain but also using these maps to understand the mind in ways never before possible.

The Human Brain project is now applying large-scale high performance computing across several European countries with more than 100 institutions involved in order to better understand the brain. The primary tasks as divided into several sub-projects that relate to: human brain organization, systems and cognitive neuroscience, theoretical neuroscience, brain simulation, high performance analytics, medical informatics, neuromorphic computing, neurorobotics, and ethical and social impact of better understanding the brain and conducting research on it.

Many of these tasks require detailed mapping of the brain’s more than 100 trillion neural connections, which are still poorly understood. A key goal is to map all of these connections to model, including the brain’s adaptations, and simulate the brain in such detail that one can better understand how human thought, reaction to disease, or behavior affect the brain’s functions.

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One major goal is to also understanding consciousness, that is what makes humans conscious or aware, which has potentially wide impacts on dealing with brain injury and understanding what also makes us different from other species. Human memory also involves neural connections that are poorly understood but can be better addressed by providing a detailed map of the human mind.[2]

Microscopic resolution 3D model of a complete human brain.  From the Human Brain Project's Interactive Atlas Viewer.
Microscopic resolution 3D model of a complete human brain. From the Human Brain Project’s Interactive Atlas Viewer.

One of the results of the project is to map electrophysiological responses in the brain in different slices so that monitoring how different regions of the brain function could be done in greater detail. One benefit has been to create tools that can transform standard 2D imaging to 3D highly detailed images.

Having also detailed knowledge of brain coordinates also allows better prediction and forecasting on how the brain may respond to a variety of stimuli.[3] Within brain imaging, standards have also developed to better allow meta-data sharing and access between researchers, which can then also allow research to share and upload data so that mapping of the brain is facilitated across different projects.

One standard,  iEEG-BIDS, enables sharing and encoding of data that researches can utilize to effectively treat the mapping of the brain like any spatial problem.[4] Mapping the brain also has potential to develop new forms of technologies, including human-robot or brain-computer interfaces that can allow communication between the artificial and organic to occur.

Advancements in reading electroencephalogram signals allows researchers to create headsets that not only capture the signals but then those signals can be translated to communicate to artificial devices. This has enormous potential in areas such as assistance to quadriplegic individuals or others facing paralysis. All of this is made  possible by having detailed neurological and neural link assessment mapped and better understood such as what is being conducted by the Human Brain project.[5]

Increasingly, scientists are learning about the benefits of mapping the human brain in great detail that allows advancements to be made in many fields, ranging from robotics to medicine. However, many of these breakthroughs are only possible by having an ever more detailed understanding of the complex functionality of the brain, whether its neural signaling or physiochemical structure. Not only does this require having large-scale computing power but it also entails treating the human brain as a spatial problem transcending physical and mental understanding.

New advancements are likely in coming years from not only from the Human Brain Project but numerous other projects now launching including private companies increasingly interested in mapping and understanding the human mind.


[1]    For a news release on a 2016 project on mapping the human brain, see:

[2]    For more on the Human Brain project, see:

[3]    For more on 3D mapping and experiments, see:  Puchades MA, Csucs G, Ledergerber D, et al. (2019) Spatial registration of serial microscopic brain images to three-dimensional reference atlases with the QuickNII tool. Malmierca MS (ed.) PLOS ONE 14(5): e0216796. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0216796.

[4]    For more on using  iEEG-BIDS, see:  Holdgraf C, Appelhoff S, Bickel S, et al. (2019) iEEG-BIDS, extending the Brain Imaging Data Structure specification to human intracranial electrophysiology. Scientific Data 6(1): 102. DOI: 10.1038/s41597-019-0105-7.

[5]    For more on human-computer or even human-robotic links, see:  Roshdy A, Karar AS, Al-Sabi A, et al. (2019) Towards Human Brain Image Mapping for Emotion Digitization in Robotics. In: 2019 3rd International Conference on Bio-engineering for Smart Technologies (BioSMART), Paris, France, April 2019, pp. 1–5. IEEE. DOI: 10.1109/BIOSMART.2019.8734244.


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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.