Fact Check: This Is Supposedly an Accurate Rendering of a 1 Cubic Millimeter Sample of a Human Brain. We Tracked Down Its Origin

Credit: Google Research & Lichtman Lab (Harvard University). Renderings by D. Berger (Harvard University)
Credit: Google Research & Lichtman Lab (Harvard University). Renderings by D. Berger (Harvard University)


A high-quality visual rendering accurately depicts a 1 cubic millimeter sample of a human brain.


Rating: True
Rating: True

With whispy blue, green, and orange-hued strands jetting atop a black background, an image shared to Reddit on May 12, 2024, claimed to show "1 cubic millimeter of brain." At the time of this writing, the post had received more than 26,000 upvotes. 

A Google keyword search returned dozens of relevant results, including a Smithsonian Magazine article published in May 2024 that described researchers who created a "digital map showing a tiny chunk of a human brain in unprecedented detail." 

This image is authentic and genuinely shows a 3D map of neurons found in the brain. We've rated this claim as "True," but let's first describe exactly what that research means – and what is featured in the rendering. 

The Smithsonian piece cited an article published by Nature News that outlined the research. Scientists at Google Research and Harvard University's Lichtman Lab mapped a small piece of the human brain, the details of which were published in the peer-reviewed journal Science. The images show neurons, or connections, between brain cells responsible for sharing information throughout the organ. 

The brain sample was taken from the cortex – the part of the brain involved in learning – of a 45-year-old woman as she underwent surgery to treat her epilepsy. Stained and preserved with heavy metals to be more visible, the sample was cut into an estimated 5,000 slices measuring just 34 nanometers thick to be imaged using electron microscopes. 

According to the Science article, the 3D brain map:

… covers a volume of about one cubic millimetre, one-millionth of a whole brain, and contains roughly 57,000 cells and 150 million synapses — the connections between neurons… [and] incorporates a colossal 1.4 petabytes of data.

AI models specially built by the researchers were used to stitch the images together to reconstruct the sample in three dimensions with associated datasets and visualizations made available online.

The "nanoscale-resolution reconstruction of a millimeter-scale fragment of human cerebral cortex" is said to provide an unprecedented view into how the brain tissue is organized at various layers, including at the supracellular, cellular, and subcellular, according to a news release at the time.

According to the authors, the reconstruction contains an estimated "57,000 cells, about 230 millimeters of blood vessels, and nearly 150 million synapses." Through these, the research team discovered aspects of the human temporal cortex that were previously underappreciated.

Disruption of synaptic and neural brain circuits, which transfer information for brain functionality, are thought to play a role in a number of conditions rooted in the brain, from schizophrenia and autism to bipolar disorder and other neuropsychiatric diseases. By better capturing how these communication pathways function, scientists hope to more comprehensibly understanding how such conditions are caused and persist in the brain. 

For the study at hand, the researchers concluded that it provides evidence for a new approach to "visualize and ultimately gain insight into the physical underpinnings of normal and disordered human brain function."

The image used in the Reddit post also appeared in a blog post published by Google on May 4, 2024, describing how the image – and others – were created with the help of AI. It read, in part: 

By combining brain imaging with AI-based image processing and analysis, our teams have reconstructed nearly every cell and all of its connections within a small volume of human brain tissue about half the size of a grain of rice. 

Other images included in the research showed a "dense and intricate map" of some neuron pairs that had "the surprising property of being connected to each other extremely strongly — through as many as 50 synapses." 

(Google Research & Lichtman Lab (Harvard University). Renderings by D. Berger (Harvard University))

Another close-up showed synapses "swimming" as they arrive between neurons, bringing with them information and signals essential for human life.

(Google Research & Lichtman Lab (Harvard University). Renderings by D. Berger (Harvard University))

This reception of signals is depicted in the image below, which shows a single neuron in white with its surrounding axons, a part of the neuron that sends electrical signals. 

(Google Research & Lichtman Lab (Harvard University). Renderings by D. Berger (Harvard University))

"There is still a lot more to observe and understand from our reconstruction of this piece of human brain, and we hope other researchers will use the data to make additional discoveries," wrote the Google team. 

"Scientists believe that by continuing research into the brain's connections, they can one day understand things like how our memories form or what leads to neurological disorders and diseases like autism and Alzheimer's." 

Snopes has looked into other claims related to the brain, from whether it's true we only use 10% of our grey matter to whether Bluetooth earbuds "fry our brains." Check out more of our health-related debunks here


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