German-Canadian collaboration boosts the HBP Brain Atlas

    12 February 2020

    The trans-atlantic laboratory HIBALL will help connect brain mapping and AI initiatives in Canada and Europe

    Jülich, 5 January 2020 – The German-Canadian laboratory HIBALL, which is based around the 20-micrometre BigBrain model developed by HBP Scientific Director Katrin Amunts of Forschungszentrum Jülich and Alan Evans of McGill University, was selected for funding by an international panel of experts as one of three projects in the “Helmholtz International Labs” programme and will receive up to € 300,000 per year for a period of five years, supplemented by the same amount of funding at the Canadian side.

    HIBALL, short for Helmholtz International BigBrain Analytics Learning Laboratory, intends to further develop the BigBrain infrastructure to achieve a high level of interoperability with brain initiatives in Canada and Europe, complementing the ongoing work in the European flagship project Human Brain Project (HBP) and Canadian initiatives in the field of AI and brain health. The lab will intensify the collaboration of brain scientists and AI experts to accelerate progress in both fields, and furthers international collaboration between the HBP and the global science community.


    The BigBrain, openly available with high-resolution maps of cytoarchitectonic areas at

    Copyright: Amunts, Schiffer, Dickscheid et al

    The goal is to create a microscopic 3D map of functional neuroanatomy at the cellular level with the help of high-performance computing and AI. To this end HIBALL will establish a common platform for High-throughput computing and data analysis, including databasing, visualization, virtualization and big-data exchange between Jülich and McGill. This will build a lasting, trans-continental research platform that will be closely linked to the HBP infrastructure, and can be expanded to other partners and disciplines in both countries.




    Ultra-high -resolution 3D maps of cytoarchitectural areas in the Big Brain model. Users can navigate in the Big Brain, zoom in to get more details, and see how the brain is parcellated.
    Copyright: Amunts, Schiffer, Dickscheid et al.

    Digital 3D atlases of the human brain are basic tools for understanding this organ in its unmatched complexity. Most atlases today offer a resolution in the millimetre range, allowing neuroscientists to study structure-function relationships of areas and large networks. However, they do not incorporate information about thin fibre bundles, cortical layers, columns, microcircuits, or cells. In order to understand brain organisation, spatial scales must be bridged and models at the level of 1 to 20 micrometres have to be developed.




    Cortical layer segmentation in the BigBrain (Wagstyl et al.), visualized in the HBP atlas viewer.

    As a result of their close long-standing cooperation, the laboratories of the HBP’s Scientific Director Katrin Amunts, Forschungszentrum Jülich, and Alan Evans, McGill University Montreal, first developed the 20-micrometre BigBrain model. In the European Human Brain Project, it became the basis for the most comprehensive atlas of the brain to date. The cellular data are spatially linked with data on many other aspects of brain organization in this atlas.




    A neural network mapping the brain in action. The different layers of the network capture different tissue properties.
    Copyright: Amunts, Schiffer, Kiwitz, Dickscheid et al.

    The new German-Canadian laboratory HIBALL will take this successful cooperation to the next level, enabling the establishment of a sustainable, transcontinental research platform for mapping the brain. This will be achieved through the increased use and joint development of the latest AI and high-performance computing technologies for building highly detailed 3D brain models – in close cooperation with the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research CIFAR and the MILA, a world-renowned AI research institute in Montreal, as well as the German Helmholtz AI platform.

    Adapted from: HBP Partner Forschungszentrum Jülich


    Prof. Katrin Amunts is the Scientific Research Director of the HBP. She leads the research area Human Brain Organization. She is director of the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine (INM-1) at Forschungszentrum Jülich in Germany and the C. and O. Vogt Institute of Brain Research at Heinrich-Heine University Düsseldorf. (Photo ©FZJ/Sascha Kreklau)


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