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Allen Institute Kicks Off New Programs to Study Human Brain, Mouse

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If you've been enjoying the 3D Brain Explorer tool that came out of the Allen Institute's mouse brain atlas, here's good news: in four years, you'll be able to zoom in and delve into a very detailed rendering of the human brain as well.

Last month, the Allen Institute for Brain Science announced it would follow up its $41 million effort to map gene expression in the mouse brain with three new initiatives: a four-year, $55 million project to map the human brain; a two-year, $15 million program to study the mouse brain at various points during embryonic and postnatal development; and a year-long, $2.3 million effort to map gene expression in the mouse spinal cord.

The spinal cord program will be the quickest and smallest of the three initiatives, but Allen Institute execs hope that the funding model that made it possible will be a promising new approach for accomplishing this kind of scientific endeavor. COO Elaine Jones says that a number of advocacy and other groups asked that this effort be undertaken, offering funding for it. "We have a very diverse group of organizations representing very different disease states that have come together and agreed to fund one project," she says.

The human brain project will be the most challenging, in part thanks to sheer size — CSO Allan Jones notes that it's 2,000 times larger than the mouse brain. That means getting all the relevant tissue on slides is no longer as simple as it was to lay down ultra-thin slices of mouse brain. He says that the human brain will be approached on a structural basis and eventually will probably consist of at least double the amount of data generated for the mouse brain atlas. Currently, the project is still in the technology assessment stage: scientists are working to evaluate tools like tissue arrays and next-gen sequencers, which could be used for gene expression profiling. Once the technological foundation is in place, scientists will analyze four to 10 individual human brains to compile the atlas.

The developing mouse project will cover 3,000 genes across seven different stages of development — four embryonic and three postnatal points. With the addition of time, the outcome will be the institute's first four-dimensional atlas. Researchers just generated the first data set for the spinal cord project.

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