First human whole-brain genetic map created

A new computer model of the

This image shows data from the Allen Institute's Human Brain Map, … (Allen Institute for Brain…)

The achievement marks a major milestone for the Allen Institute, which previously had released similar data sets for the mouse brain. The data set will allow scientists to test new hypotheses about how the particular genetic codes of different brain areas lead to the unfathomably complex, unified organ.

The task of creating an atlas of human gene expression in the brain is not an easy one. First, acquiring clinically normal brains can be a drag - brains can be among the hardest organs to get permission to excise, and to chop up for study.

Once a sample is available, the scientists need to be extremely precise with how they partition the brain so they can reliably connect genes to regions. One wrong cut and the data become imperfect.

Scientists at the Allen Institute - which is based in Seattle and is run by Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft - acquired two brains, one from an NIH tissue bank and another from a bank at UC Irvine. The brains had belonged to men ages 24 and 39. The process included acquiring permission from the next-of-kin.

The scientists then put the brains through a complex pipeline. First, they collected high-resolution pictures of each brain in an MRI machine. Then, they chopped the brains up into smaller pieces so they could detect gene expression in 900 distinct brain regions — possible because genetic transcripts remain in the tissue after death if it is cared for properly. Finally, they combined the imaging data with the gene expression information. The result is the most accurate and thorough collection of human brain gene expression data ever produced.

The main benefit of the data set, which is publicly available, will be to the thousands of neuroscientists whose hypotheses would benefit from genetic information but who currently rely on what we know about mouse brains for that information. For example, a scientist who studies fear in humans by taking images of brain activity in an MRI machine while a subject looks at fearful images can now look to see what genes are expressed in the parts of the brain that "light up" during the study. Before, they would have had to look to a scattered literature of individual studies, or to gene data from animal models.

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What is the reason for research into human brain mapping?

Research into human brain mapping is strongly endorsed by President Obama. The human brain is divided into areas referred to as 'topographic maps'. Additional research into human brain mapping will give us information about how we think and process information, memorize and reason.

How much of the human brain been mapped?

In the past hundred years the brain has been thoroughly mapped out. It is a common myth that humans use only 10% of their brain (which isn't true). At one point it was noted that about 10% of the human brain had been mapped fashion, and perhaps this statement was misinterpreted to mean that the other 90% had no mundane function.

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