The new technology, called "Virtual Finger", allows scientists to move through digital images of small structures like neurons and synapses using the flat surface of their computer screens.
"Using Virtual Finger could make data collection and analysis ten to 100 times faster, depending on the experiment," explained Hanchuan Peng, associate investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in the US.
Most other image analysis software work 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.
In sharp contrast, Virtual Finger allows scientists to digitally reach into three-dimensional images of small objects like single cells to access the information they need much 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 added.
The software and its applications were profiled in the journal Nature Communications.