Issue 17 | January 2013

CT scans of the human brain

Inside the Brain

***Articles reviewed and updated in November 2017***

The brain is one of our most fascinating organs. Developments in technology and medicine mean that doctors and scientists can examine our brains in more ways and more detail than ever before, all without having to open up the body. In this issue, we find out more about how imaging research has changed the way we can look inside the human brain.

Download the PDF, browse through the individual articles, check out our multimedia content and consider our lesson ideas. We’ve also picked out content from other issues that we think is especially relevant. This issue was first published in 2013; in 2017, all of the individual resources were reviewed and updated for accuracy and currency. Please do note, however, that the PDFs of the original 2013 issue, infographic and poster have not been updated.

Understanding the brain

Neurons by numbers infographic

Vital statistics about brains and brain imaging

Inside the brain poster

Go inside the brain with our classroom poster, free to download 

You and your brain

Your brain underpins who you are. It stores your knowledge and memories, gives you the capacity for thought and emotion, and enables you to control your body

In the system

Like other systems in the body, the nervous system consists of tissue that is made of collections of cells

White and grey

The brain is made of grey and white matter. Grey matter contains the cell bodies of neurons (nerve cells) and their local connections to each other

Finding your way around

Simple and complex psychological functions are mediated by multiple brain regions, but at the same time, one brain area may control many psychological functions

Animation: Action potential

Watch or download our animation about the action potential

The chemicals of the brain

Beneath every thought, dream or action lies a remarkable chemical dance

The neuron

A quick PDF guide from Wellcome on these highly specialised cells that conduct and process information in animals

Primate brains: how do humans compare?

Natalie Hunter investigates what our brains have in common with those of our closest living relatives, non-human primates

Structural imaging

In your head

We can image, or ‘scan’, the brain to examine its structure and function in living people and other animals

Spot the difference

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) vs computerised tomography (CT)

Magnetic resonance imaging

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is well-suited to visualising soft tissues such as the brain. It relies on the magnetic properties of atoms to produce images

Check the volume

Voxel-based morphometry (VBM) is a type of analysis applied to MRI images when researching neurological and psychiatric conditions


Neuroscientists see the brain as consisting of hundreds of specialised areas organised into multiple interconnected networks

Video: Steve gets a brain scan

What is it like to have your brain scanned?

Functional imaging


Electro-encephalography and magneto-encephalography are imaging methods used to measure brain activity directly and non-invasively from outside the head

BOLD thinking

The most common form of fMRI is blood-oxygenation-level-dependent (BOLD) fMRI

Functional MRI

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is used to image the parts of the brain that become active during different mental processes

Know your neurotransmitters

Imaging is used to measure the levels of a neurotransmitter, its receptors and its transporters (which remove neurotransmitters from the synapse after release)

Other ways to image

When neurons fire, the concentration of calcium ions inside them increases – and this can be used to image them

Quick guide to positron emission tomography (PET)

What is a PET scan and how does it work? Nancy Wilkinson finds out

Brain Stimulation

Hands-on research

Researchers can alter your brain function using electric and magnetic stimulation


Natalie Hunter investigates a cutting-edge technique that is helping researchers better understand how the brain works

Diseases and conditions

Video: Scanning stroke

Watch or download our video of young person who experienced a stroke as she looks inside her brain

A “remarkable lesion”: the causes and effects of demyelinating diseases

Find out more about the causes and effects of these debilitating diseases


Do we only use 10 per cent of our brains?

Many people think that we only use 10 per cent of our brains and that we can harness the rest to boost our mental abilities

Is there a Jennifer Aniston neuron?

It is unlikely that single neurons map directly and uniquely onto single people or objects

Is a bigger brain a cleverer brain?

Brain size and intelligence are definitely linked, but we still don’t know exactly how

Are we born with all the brain cells we’ll ever have?

Neuroscientists had always believed that the adult brain could not produce new cells and that we are born with all the neurons we will ever have

Can abuse and love change the brain?

There is plenty of evidence that childhood neglect and abuse can cause changes in the brain that have long-lasting effects

Do the sides of our brain do different things?

Another popular myth about the brain is that the left hemisphere is ‘logical’ and the right hemisphere is ‘artistic’

Can learning physically alter the brain?

Neuroscientists believe that learning and memory change the physical structure of the brain

Do we each have a ‘learning style’?

There is no neuroscientific evidence for the visual-auditory-kinesthetic model of learning styles, despite how popular the idea has become

Ethical questions

Incidental findings

Imagine your friend is doing a PhD and you have volunteered to participate in a brain-scanning study as part of her research

Unlocking consciousness

Researchers have devised a clever way of using fMRI to try to communicate with patients diagnosed as being in a vegetative state

Brains to blame

Brain injuries often affect a person’s behaviour and personality, causing them to do things that they may not otherwise do


New techniques and developments in brain imaging can raise tricky ethical questions

Exploring forensic medical imaging

Medical imaging techniques are not just used for diagnosing disease and assessing treatment; they can also be used as evidence in court

fMRI in court: a pack of lies?

Brain imaging’s role in lie detection

Historical aspects

Brain case study: Patient HM

Patient HM was an important case study for neurological research in the 20th century

Brain case study: Phineas Gage

Phineas Gage (1823–1860) was the victim of a terrible accident in 1848


Around 200 years ago, phrenology – the study of the connection between the shape of the skull and the characteristics of the mind – emerged


Trepanning – the practice of drilling or scraping a hole into a human skull – is one of the oldest surgical procedures known

Alois Alzheimer and Auguste Deter

Nancy Wilkinson looks into the story of how Alzheimer’s disease was discovered and named

Camillo Golgi

Camillo Golgi (1843–1926) was a doctor and researcher who discovered a new technique for staining tissue samples

Sir Alan Hodgkin and Sir Andrew Huxley

Two neuroscientists made some ground-breaking discoveries that would not have been possible without the help of a few molluscs

Rita Levi-Montalcini

Nancy Wilkinson finds out more about this neurologist, who jointly won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for discoveries of growth factors

Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Santiago Ramón y Cajal is often called the founder of modern neuroscience

Sir Charles Sherrington

Nancy Wilkinson finds out more about the man who discovered the synapse

Thomas Willis

Nancy Wilkinson investigates Thomas Willis (1621–1675), a pioneer of research into the brain almost 400 years ago

The brain in popular culture

Wellcome Collection’s guide to ‘Brains’

Danny Birchall gives us a guide to some of the most notable objects, drawings and photographs featured in Wellcome Collection’s ‘Brains’ exhibition

Axon game

Try out this game, which Wellcome Collection created especially for the ‘Brains’ exhibition

Books on the brain

Teachers, scientists and people at Wellcome recommend books about the brain they couldn’t live without

Real Voices interviews

Real Voices interview: Jessica Collis

Meet Jessica, who was recently diagnosed with obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), and her mum Diane

Real Voices interview: Conor Mallucci

Meet Conor, a paediatric neurosurgeon at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, Liverpool

Real Voices interview: Dr Marius Kwint

Meet Marius, a cultural historian and curator of Wellcome Collection’s ‘Brains’ exhibition

Activities and lesson ideas

Lesson ideas for ‘Big Picture: Inside the Brain’

‘Big Picture: Inside the Brain’ explores how imaging research has changed the way we look inside one of our most fascinating organs, the brain

Further resources and activities on the brain

Wellcome has funded many other organisations to produce activities and resources to engage and educate young people about the brain

Fast Facts

Each issue of 'Big Picture' comes with a sprinkling of Fast Facts, fascinating snippets of information on the topic covered.

Browse through all of our Fast Facts indexed by topic