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Atlas Squeaked

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Atlas Squeaked: A Complete Map of the Brain of a Mouse



Published: September 26, 2006


Scientists have gained a new window for peering into the brain, courtesy of a $41 million project financed by Paul G. Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft.


The project is an electronic atlas that shows which genes are switched on in neurons throughout the brain of a mouse.


Instead of looking at one gene at a time in one or a few neurons, researchers can now study all the brain genes systematically. And instead of having to visualize each gene experimentally, everything is available online. “I am using it all the time,” said Catherine Dulac, who studies mouse behavior at Harvard. “It’s an extraordinary resource.”


Marc Tessier-Lavigne, an expert on neuronal signaling and vice president for research at Genentech, said he would put the new brain atlas “on a par with the human genome project.” Both are members of the scientific advisory board overseeing the project.


Thomas M. Jessel, a neuroscientist at Columbia University, said after looking at the atlas that it was of high quality and would complement other available brain maps.


“It is likely to be the standard source for the next few years” for people interested in the pattern of gene activation in the brain,” Professor Jessel said.


The project emerged because of Mr. Allen’s desire to make a significant contribution to neuroscience.


“As you come up through computer science, as I did in high school and at Microsoft, you’re also fascinated by how the brain works in comparison with computers,” he said.


Wondering how he could contribute, he convened a group of leading neuroscientists. “They said putting the mouse brain on line would accelerate brain research throughout the world,” Mr. Allen recalled. Three years ago, he set up the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, which took on construction of the mouse brain atlas as its first task. The mouse was chosen because the brains of inbred strains are fairly standard, unlike human brains, which vary widely from one individual to another. And it is a common scientific strategy to figure out things first in mice before moving to people.


The institute developed an automatic procedure for cutting the mouse brain into thin slices and staining each slice to visualize the activity of specific genes. For each gene, 20 slices are taken. So far, 21,000 genes have been analyzed.


“As many as we could get clean reagents and unique probes for,” said Allan Jones, the chief science officer of the institute.


One surprise that has emerged is that more than 80 percent of the genes are active in the mouse’s brain cells, considerably more than the 65 percent or so indicated by other tests.


The atlas should enable researchers to define different regions of the brain, far more than can at present be recognized by anatomists, based on the pattern of genes that are active in them.


“We are comfortable in saying there will be thousands of different brain regions,” Dr. Jones said.


With the mouse brain atlas finished, the next project at the institute will be to focus on the human neocortex, the outer rind of the brain where most advanced cognitive processes are thought to occur.


The mouse brain atlas can be accessed without charge at www.brainatlas.org.

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