A brain institute funded by software billionaire Paul Allen says it has completed its first project: a map of the mouse brain down to details of individual cells. Work is already beginning on a similar map of the human brain.
The new Allen Brain Atlas is being made available online without cost to neuroscientists studying brain circuits and chemistry, a potential boon to cancer and other disease research because of similarities between the brains of mice and human beings. The formal announcement of the mouse brain atlas' completion was made by the Allen Institute for Brain Science on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
"We're trying to advance science worldwide, and being able to allow unfettered access to the data for scientists," Allen told reporters. "Hopefully that will jump-start or accelerate their research."
Dr. Allan Jones, the Seattle-based institute's chief scientific officer, said the atlas represented "the gift of time to researchers around the world."
"We’ve done the research so they don’t have to," he explained.
Genetic detective story
Because more than 90 percent of the same genes are found in mice and humans, the mouse brain map can be compared with genetic findings related to human neurological disorders. Moreover, the mapping project has shown that 80 percent of the body's genes are switched on in the brain, compared with 60 percent to 70 percent in previous scientific estimates, Jones said.
David Anderson, a biologist at the California Institute of Technology who is on the brain institute's scientific advisory board, explained that the database could be used to match up specific regions of the brain with genetic diseases. "As gene hunters find genes that are implicated in, for example, schizophrenia or depression, the genes can immediately be looked up in the atlas to see where they’re turned on," he told reporters.
Neurosurgeons at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle have begun using the atlas to study the genetics of brain cancers, said neuroscientist Marc Tessier-Lavigne, another institute science adviser who discovered the molecules that trigger connections between nerve cells. "This really just bolts us ahead in our ability to understand brain function and brain disorder," Tessier-Lavigne told The Seattle Times.
Even before completion of the mouse brain map, the institute's work had become vital to scientists delving into the genetics of multiple sclerosis, which is caused by degeneration of nerve cells, said Dr. Ben Barres, a Stanford University neurology professor.
"We use it every day," Barres said. "I hope they have enough bandwidth when everyone else starts using it."
Millions of hits per month
The institute says it now gets 4 million hits a month, with about 250 scientists access it daily.
When access to the institute was interrupted some time ago, "I learned how much we've come to depend upon this," Barres said.
"Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows just came pouring into my office, worried that they had been cut off," he said. "We can't imagine life without this tool anymore."
Allen donated $100 million to start the lab in 2003 and the mouse brain atlas cost $41 million, well under the $50 million that had been budgeted, Jones said.
Next up? Humans
The next project, Jones said, will be to develop a digital, three-dimensional, interactive map of the genes at work in a human brain's neocortex, the outer layer that is the seat of higher thought and emotion, using brains from cadavers as well as tissue removed during brain surgeries.
Scientists hope the brain-mapping research eventually will lead to new discoveries on brain function and disorders such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, epilepsy, schizophrenia and addiction, to cite just a few.
Jones told MSNBC.com that the first atlas of the human neocortex could be ready for release "within the next couple of years."
This report includes information from The Associated Press and MSNBC.com's Alan Boyle.