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Brain mapping initiative leads to biggest grant in Salk Institute history

In one corner of a lab at the Salk Institute, mouse brain diagrams are taped to the wall near a device that slices the tiny brain into segments. Salk neuroscientist Margarita Behrens spent five years doing research into the composition of the mouse brain.

“We have a very, very good atlas of the mouse brain,” Behrens said. “But we don’t have a very, very good atlas of the human brain.

And that’s where the Brain Initiative of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) comes in. The research program seeks to better understand the workings of the 90 billion neurons that make up the human brain.

The NIH has awarded Salk, UC San Diego and two other universities a $126 million grant to create an "atlas" of the human brain. Salk’s share of the funding is $77 million. It’s the biggest grant in the Salk Institute's history.

Behrens is one of the scientists working with what they're calling the Center for Multiomic Human Brain Cell Atlas. The director of the newly created research center is Salk Institute professor and molecular biologist Joe Ecker.

“We’re starting with single cells and we’re trying to understand the differences in cell types in the different parts of your brain,” Ecker said. “Sampling certain regions of the brain here you have different functions … executive functions or motor functions, for instance. It’s a sampling process at this stage to try to understand, to build maps basically of the information within those cells.”

He hopes this information may lead to gene therapies that can target only the cell populations where the treatment is needed. And how will researchers study the brain? Ecker reaches for something atop his desk.

“Actually, I have my coffee cup sitting on a slice of a brain. Though this would be just an image of a brain,” he said, as he showed me a coaster with a brain diagram on it.

The research will rely on people who donate their brains to science and yes, they will be cut into slices to be more easily observed.

Behrens said brains that are harvested quickly from cadavers can still benefit researchers.

“The person is dead. The cells are not,” Behrens said. “The cells keep functioning for a while. You can keep the tissue alive for a while in the correct conditions.”

The $126 million grant from the NIH is spread out over five years. Within five years, Ecker hopes we will know more about treating brain disorders like Alzheimer's disease and autism.

“What we are counting on is we will have significant information in five years about cell types, to derive the information that will let geneticists say, 'Oh, OK. Those genetic variants lie in these regions of the genome that are controlling gene expression in this part of the brain and these cell types.' And that will be valuable information,” Ecker said.

In all, Salk’s will study 30 human brains.

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