The animal brain is so complex, it would take a supercomputer and vast amounts of data to create a detailed 3-D model of the billions of neurons that power it.

But computer scientists and a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Utah have developed software that maps out a monkey’s brain and more easily creates a 3-D model, providing a more complete picture of how the brain is wired. Their process was announced this week at Neuroscience 2015, the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago.

“If you understand how things are wired in the normal brain, you can use this as a basis to understand how these connections are disrupted in the abnormal brain,” said Alessandra Angelucci, professor of ophthalmology and visual science at the University of Utah.

Getting a more accurate view of the brain’s network of neurons can help medical researchers understand how the brain’s connectivity is disrupted in mental and neurological conditions such as schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and autism. For Angelucci, who works at the University of Utah’s Moran Eye Center, this also can aid research on such vision-related conditions as amblyopia, a disorder where one or both eyes lack visual acuity, and various forms of retinal degeneration. Angelucci has been using this software on a monkey’s brain because it most closely resembles the human brain.

In the past, researchers would have to scan thousands of thin layers of a primate’s brain through a microscope in order to get a view of its neurons, the brain’s cells that transmit nerve impulses. There was no practical way to make a 3-D model of the brain from these layers. For example, a high-resolution scan of a part of the brain the size of a penny would generate about two million images all totaling 30 terabytes (30,000 gigabytes) in files.

“It takes a lot of computer power because we now have to reconstruct a three-dimensional image out of this — thousands and thousands of images of tissue,” Angelucci said. “It was simply impossible because there is no computer or software that can handle that. It involves terabytes and terabytes of data.”

A team led by Valerio Pascucci, a professor in the University of Utah’s School of Computing and director of the university’s Center for Extreme Data Management Analysis and Visualization (CEDMAV) at the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute (SCI), has developed software that can create a 3-D model of an animal’s brain that is much quicker and requires less computer power and system memory.

Read the full press release in the U News Center.