A Digital 3-D Brain Map Breakthrough

A cut-away view from the Allen Brain Explorer i

A cutaway view from the Allen Brain Explorer shows a 3-D rendering of mouse-brain anatomy, with reference planes mirroring a coordinate system used to "map" the brain. Allen Institute for Brain Science hide caption

itoggle caption Allen Institute for Brain Science
A cut-away view from the Allen Brain Explorer

A cutaway view from the Allen Brain Explorer shows a 3-D rendering of mouse-brain anatomy, with reference planes mirroring a coordinate system used to "map" the brain.

Allen Institute for Brain Science
Researchers at the Allen Institute for Brain Science sort slides

Researchers at the Allen Institute for Brain Science sort slides holding ultra-thin slices of mouse brains, which are scanned by a computer to track how more than 20,000 genes express themselves at the cellular level. Allen Institute for Brain Science hide caption

itoggle caption Allen Institute for Brain Science

Researchers on Tuesday celebrated the completion of a new digital atlas of the mouse brain — an achievement that will likely lead to a greater understanding of how the human brain works.

Mice brains and human brains have significant differences, but are similar enough that a complete "atlas" of the mouse brain is seen by many scientists to be as important a milestone as the Human Genome Project, which mapped the DNA sequence.

Paul Allen, who co-founded Microsoft 30 years ago with Bill Gates and is one of the world's richest men, donated $100 million to create a searchable 3-D digital map called the Allen Brain Atlas. The map is the inaugural project of the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

Allen's funding helped to assemble a dream team of scientists, who methodically scanned ultra-thin slices of mouse brain with the aid of robot helpers. Those scans help to identify how individual genes are "turned on" in different areas of the brain.

Why study the brain in such detail? Allen says the hundreds of scientists who log on to the Brain Atlas Explorer each day are already learning new things. One believes he's found a gene that controls appetite, in a chunk of the brain about the size of a dime. Pharmaceutical companies could design drugs that target the gene, for example, to combat obesity.

"What we've created is an online resource... a lot like Google Maps, where people can come in and get lots of different information sources," Allen says. "It's all right there, at their fingertips — and it's free and available."

But Allen isn't just looking to inspire working scientists. He also wants to spark the curiosity of young people who may one day use this kind of digital information to understand diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, and disorders from autism to addiction.

The Allen Institute for Brain Science is now seeking funding sources for its next planned project: scanning human brain tissue, to better understand neurological health and disease.

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