Virtual Finger takes scientists through 3D landscapes

Researchers in the US have developed a new way to digitally navigate three-dimensional images. 

The new technology, dubbed Virtual Finger, allows scientists to move through digital images of structures such as neurons and synapses using the flat surface of their computer screens.

Virtual Finger’s technology is claimed to make 3D imaging studies orders of magnitude more efficient, saving time, money and resources across many areas of experimental biology. The software and its applications are profiled in Nature Communications.

Most other image analysis software works by dividing a three-dimensional image into a series of thin slices, each of which can be viewed like a flat image on a computer screen.

To study three-dimensional structures, scientists sift through the slices one at a time: a technique that is increasingly challenging with the advent of big data.

‘Looking through 3D image data one flat slice at a time is simply not efficient, especially when we are dealing with terabytes of data,’ said Hanchuan Peng, Associate Investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. ‘This is similar to looking through a glass window and seeing objects outside, but not being able to manipulate them because of the physical barrier.’

By contrast, Virtual Finger allows scientists to digitally reach into three-dimensional images of small objects like single cells to access the information they need more quickly and intuitively.

‘When you move your cursor along the flat screen of your computer, our software recognises whether you are pointing to an object that is near, far, or somewhere in between, and allows you to analyse it in depth without having to sift through many two-dimensional images to reach it,’ Peng said in a statement.

Scientists at the Allen Institute are currently using Virtual Finger to improve their detection of spikes from individual cells, and to better model the morphological structures of neurons. It is further claimed, however, that Virtual Finger promises to be a game-changer for many biological experiments and methods of data analysis, even beyond neuroscience.

In their Nature Communications article, the collaborative group of scientists described how the technology has already been applied to perform three-dimensional microsurgery in order to remove single cells, study the developing lung, and create a map of all the neural connections in the brain of a fly.

‘Using Virtual Finger could make data collection and analysis ten to 100 times faster, depending on the experiment,’ said Peng. ‘The software allows us to navigate large amounts of biological data in the same way that Google Earth allows you to navigate the world. It truly is a revolutionary technology for many different applications within biological science,’ says Peng.

Hanchuan Peng began developing Virtual Finger while at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus and continued development at the Allen Institute for Brain Science.