Wired magazine is featuring an in-depth article on the Allen Brain Atlas project. Started by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, the project is a systematic attempt to map the brain’s cells to genes that code for them. Allen believes that the work will, among other things, provide an interdisciplinary link to knowledge about specific areas of the brain.
Say, for instance, someone is investigating the anatomy of autism. The scientist has done an fMRI study that reveals abnormalities in a cortical area in autistic subjects—a bit of brain is not functioning properly—and this might help explain the symptoms of the disease. But now what? The problem has been isolated, but at a very abstract level. The research has hit a dead end.
Meanwhile, another scientist is looking at autism from a very different perspective, conducting large-scale genetic studies that identify a few of the fragments of DNA associated with the disease. (Autism is one of the most heritable psychiatric disorders.) The problem with these efforts is that they often highlight obscure genes that haven’t been studied. Nobody knows what these genes do, or whether they’re even expressed in the brain. As a result, the research stalls and it remains completely unclear how this genetic defect might lead to the particular problems seen in the fMRIs.
But now imagine that this scientist has access to the Allen atlas. By looking at the map, he should be able to quickly see whether any of the genes known to be associated with autism—several have already been identified—are expressed in the brain areas that appear abnormal in the fMRI scans. This means that the disease can be pinpointed at a very precise level, reduced to a few dysfunctional circuits expressing the wrong set of genes. "That’s what having a huge database lets you do," Allen says. "It becomes a tool that will really accelerate the pace of research." Such a map can also help neuroscientists better target their genetic searches. Instead of looking at every gene expressed in the brain—according to the institute’s research, that may include nearly 80 percent of the human genome—they can focus only on those that are present in the relevant brain areas.