Abstractocyte: A Visual Tool for Exploring Nanoscale Astroglial Cells
(IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics, 2018.)
This paper presents Abstractocyte, a system for the visual analysis of astrocytes and their relation to neurons, in nanoscale volumes of brain tissue. Astrocytes are glial cells, i.e., non-neuronal cells that support neurons and the nervous system. The study of astrocytes has immense potential for understanding brain function. However, their complex and widely-branching structure requires high-resolution electron microscopy imaging and makes visualization and analysis challenging. Furthermore, the structure and function of astrocytes is very different from neurons, and therefore requires the development of new visualization and analysis tools. With Abstractocyte, biologists can explore the morphology of astrocytes using various visual abstraction levels, while simultaneously analyzing neighboring neurons and their connectivity. We define a novel, conceptual 2D abstraction space for jointly visualizing astrocytes and neurons. Neuroscientists can choose a specific joint visualization as a point in this space. Interactively moving this point allows them to smoothly transition between different abstraction levels in an intuitive manner. In contrast to simply switching between different visualizations, this preserves the visual context and correlations throughout the transition. Users can smoothly navigate from concrete, highly-detailed 3D views to simplified and abstracted 2D views. In addition to investigating astrocytes, neurons, and their relationships, we enable the interactive analysis of the distribution of glycogen, which is of high importance to neuroscientists. We describe the design of Abstractocyte, and present three case studies in which neuroscientists have successfully used our system to assess astrocytic coverage of synapses, glycogen distribution in relation to synapses, and astrocytic-mitochondria coverage.