Online brain atlas offers clues about diseases

The Allen Institute for Brain Science has scored a major victory in its effort to give scientists tools to unlock the mysteries of the human brain. The Seattle-based institute, funded by Microsoft ($MSFT) co-founder Paul Allen, has released the first computerized atlas of the human brain to incorporate comprehensive anatomical and genomic data on the organ.

The four-year effort to complete the first version of the brain atlas cost $55 million, the Wall Street Journal reported. The online resource, which is available for free at www.brain-map.org, includes 1,000 anatomical sites in the brain and 100 million data points that show the genes expressed and biochemistry at each site. The atlas, which is based on magnetic resonance imaging and other studies of two normal human brains, has been attracting 4,000 unique visitors per month to its website, according to the institute. The group plans to eventually include studies from 10 brains in the atlas.

Score one here for advocates of open research tools. Resources like the brain atlas give researchers deep insights into human biology, without constraints such as having to pay for access to them or putting the onus on each scientific team to develop such tools on their own. Thanks to Allen's brain atlas, there's now a widely available source of rich data for scientists to use in better understanding the genetic underpinnings of such conditions as Alzheimer's disease, autism, depression, and Parkinson's disease. Indeed, a major barrier to developing new treatments for such diseases is our lack of understanding of the biology of the brain.

"The Allen atlas tells you where a gene is turned on in the brain and that's why it is important," neurologist Jeffrey L. Noebels, of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told the WSJ. "The location of where these genes are active is at the very center of understanding how brain diseases work."

Prior to releasing the human brain atlas, the Allen Institute of Brain Science made a mouse brain atlas available in 2006.

- here's the release
- read the WSJ story
- see Bloomberg's report

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