Web-based brain atlas, a project by the Allen Institute for Brain Science, has been completed. The institute was established and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The atlas, available to anyone for free, is a three-dimensional map of 21,000 genes expressed in the brain of a mouse.
Since humans share more than 90 percent of their genes with mice, the Atlas offers profound opportunity to further understanding of human disorders and diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, epilepsy, schizophrenia, autism and addiction. About 26 percent of American adults — close to 58 million people — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year…
“This project is an unprecedented union of neuroscience and genomics,” said philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, who provided $100 million in seed money to launch the Allen Institute for Brain Science and its first project, the Allen Brain Atlas, in 2003. “The comprehensive information provided by the Atlas will help lead scientists to new insights and propel the field of neuroscience forward dramatically…”
The project has already led to several significant new findings about the brain. It reveals that 80 percent of genes are turned on in the brain, much higher than the 60 to 70 percent scientists previously believed.
It indicates that very few genes are turned on in only one region of the brain — paving the way for additional insight about the benefits and potential side effects of drug treatments. And it shows the location of genes associated with specific functions, providing scientists with valuable information about regional brain activity…
The Atlas gives scientists worldwide the gift of time, providing in one place an enormous database of information that an individual researcher could spend a lifetime trying to gather.
Many of the discrete regions of the brain perform similar functions in all mammals, and greater than 90 percent of all mouse genes have a direct counterpart in humans. By establishing this baseline of the normal mouse brain, the Atlas allows researchers to compare the brain with others altered to mimic neurological and psychiatric diseases found in humans.
Previous atlases have contained anatomic maps showing the location of various regions of the brain, but little or no information about the gene activity within them. Others have contained gene information but none have been nearly as comprehensive as the Atlas, which includes data for every major structure in the brain for nearly all the genes in the genome.
Even before its announced completion, the Atlas was receiving more than 4 million hits monthly and being accessed by approximately 250 scientists on any given work day. Users are not required to provide information about their work, but anecdotal evidence indicates that the Atlas is already assisting research projects.
“I use it around the clock, night and day. My whole lab does,” said Stanford University neurobiology professor Ben A. Barres, who is using the Atlas to confirm his team’s findings about glial cells, a type of non-neuronal cell within the nervous system.
“It’s completely essential. It’s saved us years and years of work, maybe decades. We could never have done all this, either financially or in terms of the amount of labor and time. It was just so incredibly generous of Mr. Allen to do this, and I think it’s hard to even overstate what the payoff is going to be for research.”