A Digital 3-D Brain Map Breakthrough Researchers at the Paul Allen Brain Institute -- thanks to a $100 million donation from the Microsoft co-founder -- 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.
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A Digital 3-D Brain Map Breakthrough

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A Digital 3-D Brain Map Breakthrough

A Digital 3-D Brain Map Breakthrough

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Mike Pesca.


I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, middle-class Mexicans pay to pretend they're illegal immigrants trying to cross the border.

PESCA: That sounds strange. But first, scientists are celebrating the completion of the Allen Brain Atlas. The project, funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is a searchable 3-D Map of a mouse brain.

It's expected to help researchers learn more about how the human brain works. Our tech contributor Xeni Jardin reports.

XENI JARDIN: You may know Paul Allen as the man who founded Microsoft 30 years ago with Bill Gates. Some estimates place Allen's net worth at around $23 billion. In 2003, the software developer turned philanthropist put a $100 million of that to work in his Allen Institute for Brain Science. The centers inaugural project, the Allen Brain Atlas, is now complete.

Mr. PAUL ALLEN (Founder, Allen Brain Institute): I just think that's great that we've been able to produce with the team of roughly about 80 people this whole database, and get it online so quickly. And now all scientist worldwide are benefiting from that.

JARDIN: Allen's dream team works in the laboratory just above a peaceful canal in the quiet Seattle neighborhood.

(Soundbite of door opening, beeping)

JARDIN: What are you doing here?

Dr. ALLAN JONES (Chief Scientific Officer, Allen Institute for Brain Science): We are creating a - really, a new map of the brain.

JARDIN: That's Dr. Allan Jones, chief scientific officer for the Allen Institute for Brain Science. Inside the lab, people in white coats scurry around, scanning ultra-thin slices of mouse brain with the aid of robot helpers. The scans show what genes are turned on in different parts of the brain. Dr. Jones believes that even using mouse data, they've created a brain atlas for the digital age.

Dr. JONES: The old-fashion maps of the brain are typically be sort of coffee table-size books that people would thumb through and look at very detailed illustrations of all the Latin names of the different parts of the brain. And what we've created is an online resource.

So it's a lot like the sort of the Google map where people can come in and get lots of different information sources. It's all right there at their fingertips, and it's free and available.

JARDIN: Dr. Jones opens up his laptop to show me the digital brain atlas. We click through brightly colored images of the mouse brain. With our computer mouse, we spin them around in 3-D.

Dr. JONES: We done this for 21,000 genes in the mouse brain, so the raw data that we've collected - that you're looking at here is equivalent to about 650 terabytes of raw data.

JARDIN: That's a lot of information. It's like the storage capacity of 17,000 laptops.

Dr. JONES: If that were on magnetic tape, I think it's about 300 miles of data storage magnetic tape.

JARDIN: It takes a lot of space to store all that data and a massive operation to generate it. Dr. Jones walks me through an assembly line of sophisticated machines that transform once-living tissue into electronic information. One robot had sliding metal plates for arms that jut out from a cylindrical trunk. Another slips a glass slide over a slice of brain tissue that's been dunked in chemicals to reveal which genes are active in those cells.

In another room, we see what looks like an old fashion card catalogue from your grade school library. Open one of these metal drawers, and you see row after row of glass slides of brain tissue that's already been scanned and digitally entered in the atlas.

(Soundbite of machinery)

JARDIN: You hear the busy hum of machines everywhere at the Allen Institute, and they seem to outnumber the humans. But back in his office, Paul Allen insist this project is about expanding human intelligence, which he sees as superior to technology.

Mr. ALLEN: The fact that the human brain works in such a completely different fashion than computers do and does so many things so much better than the computer, obviously - if computers could count and manipulate numbers and graphics much better than the human brain can. But that's just a fascinating area.

JARDIN: Allen says the hundreds of scientists who log on each day are already learning new things. One believes that he's found a gene that controls appetite in the chunk of the brain about the size of a dime. Maybe drug makers could design drugs that target this gene to combat obesity.

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 like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's and disorders from autism to addiction.

Mr. ALLEN: You know, if there are younger people that are interested in science research and biology and hear about this effort, that may stimulate them to think more about having a career in the area of neuroscience or biology. And that would be great.

JARDIN: Forty-one million dollars of Allen's initial $100 million grant went to completing the atlas, and the remaining money will help keep the institute going. The non-profit research organization is now seeking funding sources for its next planned project: scanning human brain tissue to better understand neurological health and disease. For NPR News, I'm Xeni Jardin.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: For links to the Brain Atlas Explorer and pictures from the Allen Institute for Brain Science, please visit our Website at npr.org. More is coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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