Despite decades of research, the human brain remains largely a mystery to science. A new $500 million The project to create its most comprehensive map could help change that.
Our brain is one of the most complex objects in the known universe. Deciphering how they work could have huge benefits, from finding ways to treat brain diseases and neurological disorders to inspiring new forms of machine intelligence.
But a critical starting point is compiling a parts list. While everyone knows that brains are mostly made up of neurons, there is a dazzling array of different types of these cells. That’s not to mention the different genres of glial cells that make up the connective tissue of the brain and play a critical supporting role.
That’s why the National EnInstitutes of Health The BRAIN initiative has just announced $500 million in funding over five years for an effort to characterize and map neuronal and other cell types throughout the human brain. The project will be led by the Allen Institute in Seattle, but they are involvedhas partnerships with 17 other institutions in the US, Europe and Japan.
“These awards will enable researchers to explore the multifaceted characteristics of more than 200 billion neurons and non-neuronal cellsis in the human brain in unprecedented detail and scale,” said John Ngai, director of the NIH BRAIN Initiative. he said in a statement.
The BRAIN initiative was launched in 2014 by former President Barack Obama to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain. The new project builds on a previous locating and mapping effort more than 100 cell types beyond the motor cortex of a mouse and will borrow many of the tools and techniques developed for this effort.
These include approaches such as single-cell transcriptomics, which makes it possible to measure the gene expression of individual cells, and spatial transcriptomics, which makes it possible to map gene expression across large sections of tissue and localize gene activity in specific regions.
A team from the Salk Institute in San Diego will also specifically focus on how the brain changes as we age by measuring changes in gene expression over time—known as epigenetic changes—in brain samples from people of various ages.
However, it will be an ambitious task. The human brain is 1,000 times larger than the brain of a mouse and much more complex, so scaling these techniques will not be straightforwardocess. If successful, the resulting cell atlas will become a powerful and freely accessible resource for neuroscientists around the world.
“I really see it as the human genome project. We are now able to define cells as we were able to define the genes,” Ed Lein, who leads the Allen Institute’s contribution, he said STAT. “This is the foundation for us to begin to understand many other aspects of biology and disease.”
These projects are part of a new round of funding it was called BRAIN 2.0 which was released earlier this year. Along with scaling up efforts to map different kinds of brain cells, $36 million will go toward an initiative called the Armamentarium for Precision Brain Cell Access, which will use data on brain cell types to develop new tools designed to target them for study and potentially treatment.
And there is more funding. Early next year, the NIH will commit another $30 million to projects that seek to take the next step in brain mapping, moving from listing parts to working out the wiring diagrams that govern how different cells and regions connect.
As the project is expected to generate petabytes of data, it is likely to be years before scientists can fully exploit this new resource. But it could prove to be a crucial piece of the puzzle as we try to unravel the mysteries of the human brain.
Image credit: Allen Institute