Massive brain dump described as triumph of molecular biology

Ten years ago, the USA government founded the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a multi-billion dollar project to “revolutionise” our understanding of the brain.

The Initiative has just dropped a new trove of research, with an international team of hundreds of scientists publishing more than 20 papers across Science journals.

Among them are the first “atlas” of cells in the human brain, based on an analysis of 1.1 million brain cells across 42 different brain regions in 3 human brains. This has yielded a comprehensive picture of the DNA in the human brain: both the genes that play roles, and the changes to DNA through epigenetic modifications.

The researchers have concluded that people have more than 3,000 different types of brain cells.

“Mapping out the different types of cells in the brain and understanding how they work together will ultimately help us discover new therapies that can target individual cell types relevant to specific diseases,” says Professor Bing Ren, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego’s school of medicine and senior author on one of the Science papers.

Other research looks at primate brains, to spot the similarities and differences between human brains and those of chimpanzees, gorillas, macaques, and marmosets.

“Mapping the brain’s cellular landscape is a critical step toward understanding how this vital organ works in health and disease,” said Dr Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

“These new detailed cell atlases of the human brain and the nonhuman primate brain offer a foundation for designing new therapies that can target the specific brain cells and circuits involved in brain disorders.”

Another branch of research has zeroed in on differences between human and mouse brains that might be “evolutionary hotspots”, liable to greater changes and more complexity in humans.

“At its core, this body of work is a triumph of molecular biology,” says Professor Ed Lein, a senior investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and lead on several of the studies.

“Differential gene usage can be used to define cell types, and the tools of genomics could be used to create the first drafts of high-resolution, annotated maps of the cells that make up the entire human brain.”

The studies will feed data into the Human Cell Atlas, an international project to characterise every human cell.

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