2022-09-23| Partnerships

Allen Institute Launches Next Phase of Mapping the Human Brain With $173 Million

by Joy Lin
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Model of human brain is on the dollar banknotes.

The Allen Institute is leading a new global collaboration to map the approximately 200 billion cells in the human brain according to type and function. The large-scale project is thought to be the brain equivalent of the Human Genome Project, a massive global undertaking that took 13 years to complete. 

The collaboration will be supported with over $173 million across five awards and grants by the National Institutes of Health’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative as part of The BRAIN Initiative Cell Atlas Network, or BICAN. 

Led by Ed Lein, Ph.D., a senior investigator at the Allen Institute, and Hongkui Zeng, Ph.D., Director of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the human and primate atlas grant project also includes subprojects from 17 other institutions in the US, Europe, and Japan. 

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The BRAIN Initiative 

The BRAIN Initiative was a $100 million program launched by the US government in 2013 to better understand human brain anatomy. To achieve this goal, researchers decided to take a census of every cell in the brain and how cells connected to each other. The effort was known as the BRAIN Initiative Cell Census Network (BICCN), which would provide the frameworks needed to begin the next phase of the BRAIN Initiative, BICAN. 

BICCN projects focused on mapping the cells of the entire mouse brain and parts of the human brain using single-cell transcriptomics, a technique that uses the full suite of genes switched on in individual cells. 

According to Zeng, by better understanding cell types in common research subjects like rodents and primates, comparisons can be made with the structure and function of the human brain itself. 

“Comparing cell types is one of the most robust and accurate ways of comparing the brains of different species, and we are doing this at a refined level and at the most comprehensive scale we can achieve,” said Zeng, who is co-leading a BICAN project headquartered at Harvard University to map cell types through the development of the mouse brain. 

The findings will improve translational research and ultimately benefit people suffering from brain diseases and disorders.

Marrying Neuron Function With Cell Type, Cell Maps With Brain Function 

Two of the newly funded BICAN projects aim to address a key question in neuroscience: What do our different kinds of brain cells actually do? 

One of the projects will attempt to marry neuron function with cell type in visual processing regions of the mouse brain. Led by Anton Arkhipov and Marina Garrett, two investigators in the MindScope Program (launched by the Allen Institute in 2020), the project will use new methods involving a high-resolution microscope to visualize specific kinds of cells in the mouse brain. This will be followed by experiments to capture the cell’s activity as the mice perceive and react to their visual environments. 

BICAN will also try to find links between cellular maps and brain function, using a technique called functional MRI that reveals blood flow in the brain, with active brain regions correlated with higher activity. Another emerging method, called spatial transcriptomics, will label cell types in their original locations in the brain and help correlate active brain regions with specific cell types. 

To support coordination and knowledge sharing for the BICAN community, the Allen Institute will use the grants to develop a public, web-based knowledge platform bringing together all data and findings generated by the BICAN network. Additionally, another group from Allen will build an engagement, coordination, and outreach center for BICAN-funded research. 

“This grant package demonstrates the leading role the Allen Institute is playing in the field — from data generation to computational analysis, as well as the organization of the data, knowledge, and the entire community. We look forward to working together with our colleagues to make ground-breaking discoveries about the human brain,” said Zeng.


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