Three years ago, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen doubled down
on brain research, luring some of the nation’s top experts
to Seattle and pledging an additional $300 million to study
the world’s most complex organ at a level of detail never
Allen Institute for Brain Science is releasing initial results
from that effort: The first, online database that profiles
individual neurons based on shape, activity and other factors
— similar to the way baseball fans size up players from
their batting averages and positions.
institute is also unveiling a more in-depth analysis of a
deadly type of brain cancer to help spur development of new
this is utterly unique," the institute’s chief
scientific officer, Christof Koch, said of the cell database.
"But it’s only a down payment."
first catalog includes profiles of about 240 neurons, but the
goal is to expand quickly by using industrial-scale methods.
"In order to do this systematically, we have to look at
tens of thousands of cells," said Koch, who left Caltech
to lead the project.
always, the institute’s new resources are freely available
to scientists around the world.
can be at big pharma or working in Timbuktu — anybody can
download it," Koch said.
human brain is made up of 200 billion cells, on a par with the
number of stars in our galaxy. Almost half those cells are
neurons, which are often lumped together as gray matter.
neurons come in a dazzling array of shapes and sizes, and
scientists are just beginning to understand the differences
look a little bit like trees in a forest," Koch said.
"Some are dense, some are open, some have branches close
to the ground, others have branches high above the
the institute’s long-term goals is to characterize all those
cell types and assemble the neurological equivalent of
chemistry’s periodic chart of elements.
we want to understand brain disease, what goes wrong in
schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s, it’s critical to understand
how many different cell types there are and how they differ in
function," Koch said.
the human brain is so complex, the initial database was drawn
from the portion of the mouse brain responsible for vision.
But work is already under way on a human version.
his team estimates that the mouse visual cortex contains at
least 42 types of cells. In humans, estimates range up to
1,000 types of neurons.
database is both visual and quantitative, including
high-resolution micrographs of each neuron, three-dimensional
models that can be rotated on screen and graphs that trace the
electrical firing patterns through which brain cells
communicate with each other and the rest of the body.
you feel pain or happiness, when you hear or see, that is all
conveyed by electrical activity in the brain," Koch said.
iterations of the database will add information on which genes
are most active in each type of cell.
the database will be most useful to researchers working to
build computer models that attempt to mimic the function of
the normal brain and which may help reveal what goes haywire
in disease, Kock explained.
disease the Allen Institute had explored in great detail is
glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive and deadly type of
brain cancer. The majority of people diagnosed with the
disease survive little more than a year and there are few
collaboration with Seattle’s Swedish Neuroscience Institute
and the Ben and Catherine Ivy Foundation, scientists at the
Allen Institute have been working for several years to
understand the disease’s extraordinary malignancy and find
ways to stop it.
they’ve updated an online atlas with new details on the
anatomy of tumors from 41 patients. They also teased out the
genetic differences between, for example, cells at a tumor’s
core and cells on the periphery that invade healthy tissue.
And they’ve compiled genetic data on what are suspected to
be cancer stem cells — cells within a tumor that may drive
metastasis and regrowth after treatment or surgery.
is that other researchers will be able to take the new
insights and use them to develop new drugs or treatments, said
Ralph Puchalski, a leader of the glioblastoma studies at the
hope people will leverage this important information and build
on it to develop ... personalized tools for patients," he
promising new therapies are being tested now, said Nameeta
Shah, a research scientist at Swedish involved in the project.
But most appear to work only on a subset of patients.
her colleagues want to develop genetic profiles to identify
which of the new treatments will work best for individual
patients. They’re also launching clinical trials to identify
new combinations of existing drugs that might work in some
think in the next two to five years, we should see some
dramatic impact of all the collective research," Shah
cell work is particularly intriguing, she added. Many
scientists are convinced that the most effective way to stop
tumors from recurring may be to wipe out cancer stem cells.
you can develop drugs that will target these stem cells, then
maybe you can cure the disease," she said.