New Virtual Reality Technology Allows Scientists to 'Walk Through' Brains

Researchers have developed technology that lets scientists explore images created by microscopes in 3D.

Scientists have developed new virtual reality technology that lets them walk through images created by powerful microscopes. The images captured by the microscopes are rendered by the software into a 3D image that the scientists can explore using a virtual reality headset. The technology developed by the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Geneva, allows users to immerse themselves in the data. A hand-held pointer lets them interact with the data slicing, highlighting or selecting. 

Modern microscopes capture much more information than just a flat image and all this extra information is used to create the 3D visualization. Rather than studying a flat image of a mouse brain scientists can virtually step inside the data and ‘walk’ through it.

The technology was developed in response to the huge amount of data that is being generated in labs where cutting-edge microscopes are in use. The Wyss Center uses a custom built light-sheet microscope at its Campus Biotech in Geneva, Switzerland. There are two other super powerful microscopes in the world that can visualize individual neurons which are five times thinner than a human hair. 

Huge amounts of data can finally be visualized

“The immense data volumes produced by today’s high-performance microscopes are driving the development of new methods to visualize the brain. We have developed this virtual reality system to reconstruct cellular level neuroanatomical data in 3D space. The system provides a practical solution to experience, analyze and quickly understand these exquisite, high-resolution images,” explains Dr. Stéphane Pages, Staff Scientist at the Wyss Center and Senior Research Associate at the University of Geneva, lead author of the research paper. 

Technology opens doors to advanced neural research

This new visualization ability has huge impacts on neural research. Dr. Gilles Reymond, Staff Engineer at the Wyss Center outlines the possibilities: “In the future, this could prove a very useful tool to gain a new 3D perspective on the complex mechanical and biological interactions between the human brain and new types of MRI compatible brain probes that can be used to help people overcome nervous system disorders. It could also be used to help surgeons visualize and practice the steps involved in a complex surgery in virtual reality before performing it on a patient.”

New Virtual Reality Technology Allows Scientists to 'Walk Through' Brains
Source: Wyss Center

The Wyss Center’s translational neurotechnology program has a focus on understanding the mechanical and biological interactions between novel neural implants and the brain. This technology allows scientists to trace the distribution of neural pathways through the brains and even examine the dendritic spines, which are the micron-sized protrusions that are communication points between neurons.