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NIH Launches $500M Effort to Map Cells of the Human Brain

Human Brain MRI

NEW YORK – The US National Institutes of Health on Thursday announced a $500 million initiative, funded through a series of grants over a five-year period, to support the creation of cell atlases of human and nonhuman brains and maps of cell interactions to inform research into neurological diseases. Awardees will build the atlases and maps through single-cell sequencing, noninvasive medical imaging, and advanced bioinformatic analysis.

Called the BRAIN Initiative Cell Atlas Network (BICAN), the project is part of the National Institute of Mental Health's ongoing Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. NIH awarded 11 grants worth $500 million in total for the BICAN. In addition, it made seven awards totaling $36 million over three years for the pilot phase of a related project called the Armamentarium for Precision Brain Cell Access.

The largest share of the money, $173 million in five grants, is going to the Allen Institute (see additional coverage here) to build the first-ever complete cell atlas for the human brain, as well as atlases for the brains of marmosets and macaques.

Another group, led by the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, was awarded $126 million in BRAIN Initiative grants to create the Center for Multiomic Human Brain Atlas. This center will attempt to map the human brain on a cellular level to understand how neurotypical brains operate and age.

Several smaller grants include $14.9 million to the Broad Institute to cover the development of an atlas of human brain cell variation; $36.4 million to the University of California, San Francisco, to study brain development in humans and primates; and $5.3 million to University of California, Los Angeles, researchers to map cellular-level gene regulation in developing human brains.

"The [UCLA] database will significantly improve our study of genetic variants associated with psychiatric and neurological disorders," grantee Chongyuan Luo said in a statement. "More specifically, the dataset can lead to the discovery of specific cell types and genomic regions that mediate the risk of brain diseases."

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