The Human Brain in 3D
March 1, 2013
The mysteries of the human brain—which some say is the most complex piece of design
in the known universe—are now easier to fathom thanks to Prof. Wiesław L. Nowiński, a Polish researcher working in Singapore.
Nowiński is the director of a biomedical imaging laboratory run by the Singaporean Agency for Science, Technology and Research established by that country’s Ministry of Trade and Industry in 1991.
A team of researchers headed by Nowiński has developed three-dimensional and extremely accurate electronic atlases of the brain that may help doctors better diagnose diseases and plan operations more precisely.
Stroke is one of the leading causes of death and also a key cause of disability. It is very important for doctors to identify the affected area and the risks involved. The number of life-saving medical procedures and operations restoring functions lost due to stroke continues to grow. The faster a doctor is able to diagnose the patient and determine which area of the brain has been affected as well as how fast the damage is spreading, the better is the patient’s chance to not only survive but also recover. And this is where the electronic brain atlases developed by Nowiński’s team step in. They are designed to help doctors diagnose and treat patients, and are also useful in the treatment of other brain diseases.
The scientists have created a range of atlases—anatomical, functional, vascular, and those focusing on neurological diseases, particularly useful in the surgical treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Recently the researchers have focused on atlases related to the treatment of ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke.
“A total of 26 different types of brain atlases have been developed—available on CD and online, as well as atlases designed for use as independent libraries and related to various functions and areas of the brain; and there’s also an atlas for the iPad,” says Nowiński.
The commercial version of the brain atlas has 2,000 components, and the scientific version about 2,300. This means that the researchers endeavored to show the minutest parts of the brain and model it as accurately as possible.
Thousands of neurologists, neuroradiologists and neurosurgeons all over the world use these atlases, including when they need to make quick decisions during surgery.
Traditional images show the brain in one dimension. Electronic atlases allow a surgeon to see the part in question from a different angle.
“I want to bring about a situation in the future in which patients will be able to make their own decisions—of course, as far as their condition allows them to—on just how far-reaching a brain operation should be,” says Nowiński. “This is yet another function of these atlases—to enable even a layman to see where the centers of the different vital functions are located and be able to decide which of them can be removed by the surgeon and which should be preserved.”
An operation can be aggressive so as to prolong the patient’s life to the maximum at the expense of quality of life. Or the doctor can try to keep the quality of life at the highest possible level while taking the risk that the patient’s life may be shortened.
Nowiński’s atlases are complementary to standard CT and MRI scans, which do not show, for instance, tiny blood vessels that supply microscopic structures important for the brain. Nowiński’s atlases depict everything precisely—the vessels, the nerves, the structure, the connections; and it is even possible to see the smallest arterioles with a diameter of 80 microns. This level of accuracy has been made possible by a magnetic field many times more intense than in a standard MRI procedure. With a field strength of 1.5 T (Tesla), doctors are able to see no more than about 150 vessels in the pictures produced by conventional equipment, whereas the scanners used by Nowiński produce a field of 7 T and make it possible to see 1,300 vessels.
“Artistically speaking, the human brain is a beautiful work of nature,” says Nowiński. “This may not be readily apparent on the dissection table or in traditional anatomical atlases and textbooks. In the brain, everything fits together perfectly and looks elegant. It is only when we try to grasp the complexity of the brain in terms of design do we see just how far nature and evolution have complicated it and just how little we know about it.”
Danuta K. Gruszczyńska
Prof. Wiesław L. Nowiński has lived and worked in Singapore since 1991. He has authored over 500 research publications and filed 50 patent applications, securing 30 patents, including 14 in the United States. He has spun off three hi-tech companies from his lab. His brain atlases have been sold to 16 companies; 10 versions of the atlases are distributed by Thieme Medical Publishers.
Nowiński has a list of 37 awards to his name, including the Magna cum Laude from the Radiology Society of North America (RSNA)—a major award in the radiology community. His work has been reported on in the international media, including the Discovery Channel and The Wall Street Journal.
In 2012, he was named an “Outstanding Pole” in the TerazPolska (Poland Now) competition held under the auspices of the Polish president.