Brain-cell atlases point to paths for future research

In a tour de force for neuroscience, teams of researchers have published a voluminous set of brain-cell atlases for humans and other primates.

The atlases are detailed in 21 research papers appearing in ScienceScience Advances and Science Translational Medicine — and could point scientists toward new strategies for addressing mental conditions ranging from Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia to epilepsy and ADHD.

“We need to understand the specifics of the human brain if we hope to understand human diseases,” Ed Lein, a senior investigator at Seattle’s Allen Institute, said in comments provided via video.

“Most of disease research tries to create a replicate or a model of a human disease in a species that doesn’t get that disease,” Lein explained. “But if we want to understand why we get it, and what the consequences are, and how one should treat it, we need to have a deep understanding of the human brain itself.”

The studies in the package released today are part of the National Institutes of Health’s BRAIN Initiative Cell Census Network, or BICCN, a program that was launched in 2017. The Allen Institute for Brain Science has played a major role in sharing data produced by the program.

One study analyzed more than a million cells taken from 42 regions of the brain. Another study drew high-quality samples from more than 100 brain regions. Yet another study focused on samples from prenatal brain tissue. The collective efforts of the research teams characterized more than 3,000 human brain cell types.

The researchers didn’t just examine the brain cells themselves. They also ran them through DNA analysis to learn which genes appeared to be linked to the cells’ functions and dysfunctions.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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