Atlases in AFNI - framework


How AFNI handles atlases, templates, spaces and transformations


As part of a large group of changes to the way AFNI deals with templates and atlases, AFNI now includes expanded support for a virtually unlimited selection of atlases, standard templates, template spaces and transformations. The primary resource for defining how AFNI handles the various aspects of atlas and template space usage is determined by referencing a central file, AFNI_atlas_spaces.niml. This scheme allows users to create atlases and templates relatively easily. The descriptions below outline the configuration and usage of this file for some common examples.

If you are interested in adding  or making a new atlas, skim through this page and then read the following link:

First, a few brief definitions are needed in order to avoid confusion and to establish the terminology used throughout this document and AFNI help.

Atlas: dataset that provides some level of segmentation, i.e. structures corresponding to a fixed intensity level or, for probabilistic atlases, to a particular volume. Some examples include the Talairach Daemon and the Eickhoff-Zilles cytoarchitectonic probabilistic atlases.

Template: a reference dataset used as a basis for alignment. Examples are the N27 brain, the MNI-152, MNI-452 brains.

Space: a correspondence with some template, loosely meaning fitting in the same “shoebox” as the template. Spaces may include TLRC, MNI, MNI_ANAT, ORIG.

Transformation: the method used to convert data or coordinates from one space to another. Current transformation types include affine transformations, 12-piece transformations from manual Talairach procedures, two-piece transformations.

In the NIML file, four different kinds of entries may be entered corresponding to the four definitions just introduced above. Each entry is discussed in more detail below. 

1. Spaces

Space definition

Datasets are now marked with an attribute, TEMPLATE_SPACE, that marks them with the space to which they are aligned. To be clear, the "space" is a description of location associated with some template. The space is used to indicate a spatial correspondence among all datasets that share the same space. So any position in one space should be the same as the corresponding position in another dataset. 

Not only are the subject datasets marked with a space, the template and atlas datasets used by AFNI are also marked with a space. The space is either determined by the template itself or inherited from another dataset. AFNI is distributed with templates and atlases in TLRC, MNI and MNI_ANAT spaces. Each space is defined in the AFNI_ATLAS_SPACES.niml file as in the following example:




  comment="The TLRC templates manually talairached from MNI group templates"


Note the definition of the space includes only three parts – the name of the space ,a generic equivalent along with a descriptive comment. In this case, the TT_N27 is the name of the space for datasets aligned with a manually Talairched version of the Colin_N27 dataset. Because it has been Talairached, it also has  correspondence with other Talairach datasets, so the generic space may be assigned to be “TLRC”.

Aligning data to a template and spaces

Support for these spaces is included with @auto_tlrc so that alignment to a specific template will assign the template's space to the aligned dataset. Each of the templates distributed with AFNI that include "TT" in the prefix are in Talairach space (TLRC). "MNI" in the template prefix signifies MNI space. See the datasets included in the afni binary directory for the full list. In usage mode 2, @auto_tlrc will carry over the parent dataset's space to the child dataset. Similarly, adwarp will also apply the space of the parent dataset to the child output. Other programs that do alignment and transformation, like, 3dAllineate, 3dvolreg, 3dWarpDrive, 3dWarp, 3drotate, 3dresample, 3dfractionize, ..., do not update the space to a template explicitly. For these, the program may include options for a master dataset. In those cases, the output should match the space of the master dataset. In other cases, you may need to manually set the space of the output dataset. 

Seeing and changing the space of a dataset

A few utilities provide support for use of spaces. To find out the space of a dataset, use the 3dinfo command. 3dinfo will report the template space at the beginning of its output. To assign or reassign a space to a dataset, use the command 3drefit -space (ORIG/ACPC/TLRC/MNI/MNI_ANAT). 

Implicit use of space and inheritability

Other programs in AFNI should allow the automatic inheritance of the space attribute from the master or first dataset input. 3dcalc, 3dcopy and others should follow this behavior. Not all programs have been verified to follow this behavior, so please check. 

NIFTI support

The NIFTI format includes support for Talairach and MNI space in the qform and s-form code fields. AFNI will assign the corresponding space to the dataset and inherited datasets. Note NIFTI does not include a code for MNI_ANAT space. 

whereami in the AFNI GUI

The AFNI GUI uses the template space of the dataset in the interactive whereami GUI when computing the current location by transforming the position in the dataset's space to the position in the space of each of the atlases defined in the AFNI_atlas_spaces.niml. The transformations between MNI and TLRC spaces are computed using the Brett transform, a two-step affine transformation procedure. The coordinates are reported in the whereami GUI for a selected group of spaces. By default, the coordinates are displayed in TLRC, MNI and MNI_ANAT spaces, but this selection of spaces may be set using the environment variable, AFNI_TEMPLATE_SPACE_LIST (see environment variable section for details). 

whereami command

The whereami command has the option -space to include support for coordinate input in any of the allowed spaces. Alternatively, the -dset option supplied with a dataset name will use the space of the dataset to compute the transformations to use with its atlases. 

Environment variables and Default Behavior

Wherever the dataset has no space explicitly set, the space is assumed from the "view" part of the dataset name. For example, if the dataset, anat+tlrc, has no TEMPLATE_SPACE attribute, then the space will be assumed to be the default space of TLRC. If the environment variable, AFNI_DEFAULT_STD_SPACE, is set, then its value will be used as the name of the space for those datasets that are missing a space attribute. 

2. Transformations

Transformation definition 

The niml file contains definitions for the transformations among the template spaces. Transformations are defined between a source space and a destination space. The following example is defined in AFNI_atlas_spaces.niml:







  distance = "1.0"


  xform_type="Affine" >

  1 0 0 0

  0 1 0 4

  0 0 1 5


The transformation definition above has several elements that need explanation. First, the ni_type and ni_dimen describe the number of data elements. Next, the name describes the source and destination spaces with a double colon between the two although this is not required and may simply be any descriptive name. The “source” field is the name of the source space, and the “dest” field is the name of the destination space. The distance is a quantification of the “cost” to transform from one space to another that becomes important when considering the shortest path among a network of multiple spaces. By manipulating the distance costs of multiple transformations, certain paths can be preferred or restricted, and a specific path can be enforced. The comment is simply a short description of the transformation. The “xform_type”  is the type of transformation. In this example, the transformation is an affine type, but the xform_type may be “Identity”, “Brett”, “12-piece”. Depending upon the type, the number of data elements that follow may vary. For the “Affine” transformation, 12 data elements follow. In this case, the affine transformation is a simple shift of 4 mm in the anterior to posterior direction and a 5 mm shift in the inferior to superior direction.

whereami command

The whereami command includes support for transformations among spaces even when there is no direct transformation but instead must go through intermediate spaces. Coordinates may be transformed from any defined space to any other as long as a connection may be found. A Dijkstra search method determines the shortest path between a source space and destination space. The whereami command can show the chain of spaces, transformations (-show_chain) and concatenated transformations (-calc_chain) between a source and a destination space. The transformation from a dataset in TT_N27 space follows a transformation chain that first computes a 12-piece transformation from TT_N27 to MNI space and then an affine transformation from MNI space to MNI_ANAT space.

3. Templates

Template definition 

Templates are datasets that provide a reference for alignment. These can be virtually any dataset. Several datasets are included with AFNI that are often used as templates. The niml file contains definitions for the template datasets.





The template definition includes only the name of the dataset and the space of that dataset. A list of templates from the NIML file may be displayed using “whereami –show_templates”, but an entry in the NIML datasets is not required for the @auto_tlrc script, the main tool for alignment to a template.

4. Atlases

Atlas definition 

Like templates, atlases are also datasets, but these provide segmentation describing the structures within some space for a template. They are usually poor choices for a template for alignment. Several atlases are now provided with AFNI:



CA_N27_ML, CA_N27_MPM, CA_N27_PM, CA_N27_GW, CA_N27_LR,


DD_Desai_PM, DKD_Desai_PM, FS_Desai_PM

The AFNI_atlas_spaces.niml file contains definitions for each atlas provided with AFNI. The following atlas description is included for the definition of an atlas:





   description="Probability maps of 75 cortical areas"

   comment="Described in Destrieux et al., Neuroimage 2010 (53) pp. 1-15."


Here the entry is demarcated by the “<ATLAS” to “></ATLAS>” lines.  The first field within the entry, atlas_name, gives the short name of the atlas that can be used to specify a specific atlas to whereami or to other AFNI programs for specific atlas regions. The dset_name contains the name of the atlas dataset. This name may contain the full or partial path. If no path is included, as in the above example, the current directory, the AFNI_PLUGINPATH and then all the directories in the user’s path are searched until the dataset is found. Typically, the dataset will be kept in the AFNI binary directory, but it may be placed anywhere. The “template_space” tells AFNI for which space the atlas is defined. In this case, the atlas has been created for the TT_N27 space, i.e. aligned to the Talairach-transformed Colin N27 template.  The “description” shows a brief description of the atlas with the “comment” providing extra information, like citation references.

The atlas dataset itself has additional information in the AFNI header that describes the atlas. The header contains the mapping of structures to intensities or to sub-brick labels. There will also be flags to mark the dataset as a probabilistic map or if the dataset requires integral or continuous color maps when it is displayed in the afni GUI. A probabilistic atlas dataset will have multiple sub-bricks with each sub-brick representing a probability of a particular structure. These datasets are typically quite large, so loading all of them takes up a large amount of memory, but the datasets compress well, so disk space is less of an issue.


Environment Variables

Several variables control how AFNI uses the whereami features. These are listed below.

AFNI_ATLAS_LIST : This list contains the names of the atlases that should be queried when no specific atlas has been requested. For example, the afni GUI and whereami, by default, do not load all the atlases specified in the AFNI_atlas_spaces.niml file. If this variable is not set, the TT_Daemon atlas and the cytoarchitectonic Eickhoff-Zilles in MNI_ANAT space are loaded. If the variable is set to a list like “TT_Daemon,DD_Desai_PM”, then only these two atlases are loaded. The list of atlas names may be separated by commas or semicolons. A special case of “ALL” may be set, and all the available atlases will be loaded.

AFNI_TEMPLATE_SPACE_LIST :  This list contains the names of the template spaces that are shown when whereami reports the coordinates among various spaces. By default, the list contain “TLRC,MNI,MNI_ANAT”. As for the AFNI_ATLAS_LIST, this list may also be set to “ALL”.

AFNI_ATLAS_COLORS : This variable controls which atlas will be used by default in the AFNI GUI for Atlas colors, Go to atlas location and Draw Dataset plugin menus. By default, the TT_Daemon is used.

Other environment variables are less important, but are included here for reference.

AFNI_PLUGINPATH : This variable sets the directory to load atlases and NIML files if not in the current directory. If this variable does not exist or the referred file does not exist, then the atlas is searched in the user’s current PATH setting. If this is set, atlases will be found more quickly than searching all the directories of the entire PATH.

AFNI_WHEREAMI_DEC_PLACES: Sets precision for whereami output.  Higher field data and animal atlases require higher precision. The default value used for focus point among template spaces is still 0 decimal places (closest mm), but animal data requires three decimal places. Value may range from 0 to 10.

AFNI_WAMI_DEBUG :  This variable controls the output of detailed messages about various tasks involved in loading atlases, transformations and composing query results. By default, this information is not shown.

AFNI_TTATLAS_DATASET : This variable may also specify the default location of AFNI atlases. This variable is maintained mostly for backward compatibility. By default, this is not set.

AFNI_WHEREAMI_NO_WARN : Turns off warnings about various whereami features – like queries that reached their limit of returned results. By default, warnings are displayed the first time a particular message is encountered.

AFNI_WHEREAMI_MAX_FIND : By default, only the first nine structures are displayed within a particular atlas. You may increase or decrease this to show more or fewer structures in the whereami results.

AFNI_WHEREAMI_MAX_SEARCH_RAD : By default, whereami searches a radius of 7.5 mm. Set a radius up to 9.5 mm.

AFNI_DEFAULT_STD_SPACE :  The default template space is assumed to be TLRC. This is used for coordinate input to whereami, the whereami GUI and for TLRC view datasets without a template space explicitly set in the dataset header.

AFNI_SUPP_ATLAS, AFNI_LOCAL_ATLAS :  These variables allow the addition of more atlas definitions to the global list of atlases, templates, spaces and transformations. The variable should be set to the name of a NIML file with the same format of the AFNI_atlas_spaces.niml file. These can be customized by site (supplemental) or by subject (local) and follow the same search order as the AFNI_atlas_spaces.niml file. In order to be included in default searches, additional atlases or template spaces would also need to be added to AFNI_ATLAS_SPACE_LIST and the AFNI_TEMPLATE_SPACE_LIST unless those are set to “ALL”.

AFNI_GLOBAL_SESSION :  This variable contains the name of a directory to include in every session of the AFNI GUI for display. Typically this would be only the atlases or templates. Caution warp-on-demand in the AFNI GUI may warp datasets that do not have their own warp transformation using a transformation from one of the templates datasets in this session directory.


Distributed Atlases

AFNI is distributed with the Talairach Daemon, the 1.8 version of the cytoarchitectonic atlases of the Eickhoff-Zilles group, the probabilistic atlases provide by Rutvik Desai based on a typical AFNI processing pipeline using @auto_tlrc and FreeSurfer.