Incredibly Trippy 'Brainbow' Imagery Is Helping Doctors to Treat Tumors

The images look like experimental art representing the human brain.
Chris Young
brainbow conceptiStock/MF3d

Neuroscientists in Melbourne, Australia are creating impressive new trippy brain images that visualize the incredibly complex network of fibers that make up the brain.

Far from being made for artistic purposes, these images are helping doctors to treat important brain diseases and tumors.


Tracing the brain's fiber pathways

As ABC reports, 'brainbows' see researchers scan a brain via a special type of MRI machine. They then add a number of mathematical models - and a lot of bright colors - and what comes out is an incredible image tracing the fiber pathways of the brain.

The results could be something out of a psychedelic prog-rock album cover, but the utility goes far beyond the prettiness of the colors on the screen.

Incredibly Trippy 'Brainbow' Imagery Is Helping Doctors to Treat Tumors
a) A motor nerve innervating ear muscle. b) An axon tract in the brainstem. c) The hippocampal dentate gyrus. Source: Jeff W. Lichtman and Joshua R. Sanes

"We use it to plan surgery," Joseph Yuan-Mou Yang, a neurosurgery research fellow at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne explained to ABC.

"This imaging technique mimics the actual nerve fiber pathways in the brain. It allows you to visualize where these nerve pathways are supposed to be."

Enhancing MRIs

"Diffusion MRI images themselves, they look ugly and they're not very easy to understand," Thijs Dhollander, a scientist at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, who researches in the field of tractography, explains to ABC. "So we put them together in a model."

These mathematical models are the foundation of the brainbows. 

By enhancing the black and white diffusion MRI images by adding colors, the researchers can provide insight into the neural pathways.

"With most of these images we use three colours: red, green, and blue, and they indicate the orientations of the cables [fiber pathways] compared to your head," says Dr. Dhollander.

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Michele Veldsman, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, also studies and uses tractography - the 'brainbow' images. 

"Diffusion tractography is an incredible advance in neuroscience, because it is the only way we can estimate the highly complex wiring of the living human brain," she says.

She says her work shows that there are changes in the brain related to white matter as we age. These are not visible to the human eye in MRI - they can only be detected with the advanced statistical modeling techniques of tractography.

Dhollander and his team, meanwhile, were able to use 'brainbows' to help successfully remove a tumor from a 15-year-old boy without causing any damage to his language function.

The images were vital in allowing them to avoid cutting important parts of the brain, they say. 

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