Each one of us has a brain that is 94% similar to everyone else’s, including Einstein’s, shows the world’s first computerised gene map of the brain. The human brain is easily the most complex known living structure, controlling all the body’s activities, from heart rate to emotions, sex, learning and memory. By detaining genes at work throughout the brain, the Allen Human Brain Atlas released this week unlocks the final mysteries of what constitutes grey matter.
It took scientists at Seattle’s Allen Institute of Brain Science US $55 million and four years of research to design this interactive online research tool that offers limitless potential to understand how the brain works and fuel drug discovery for a range of brain diseases and disorders, from mental illnesses and addictions, to obesity, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, autism and more.
The essential genetic blueprint shows that at least 82% of all human genes are expressed in the brain. The detail and accuracy comes from the analysis of two human brains — both male — using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and a variation of MRI called diffusion tensor imaging. The data showed 94% similarity between human brains. These patterns, say scientists, offer a critical foundation for translational and clinical research.
Allan Jones, the CEO of the institute, told Wired magazine how the brains were chopped up into small pieces to extract RNA — ribonucleic acid, which along with DNA and proteins is essntial for all known forms of life — that was then used to obtain a read-out of the 25,000 genes in the human genome. Next, this information was put together to create a detailed map of the brain.
The Atlas can be compared to a multi-functional GPS navigation system that helps scientists identify 1,000 anatomical sites in the human brain, backed by more than 100 million data points that indicate the particular gene expression and underlying biochemistry of each site. For example, it can help researchers quickly create a 3D snapshot of all the locations in the brain where Prozac’s biochemical targets are expressed.
The data also helps identify how disease and accidents — including physical brain injuries and mental health disorders — affect specific areas of the brain. It can also enhance drug delivery by pinpointing exactly where a particular drug acts anatomically in the brain, which would ultimately enhance the effect of the treatment while lowering side effects.
The World Health Organisation estimates brain-related disorders will be the leading cause of disability in 2020, which makes a better understanding of grey matter, critical. That’s where the Allen Human Brain Atlas comes handy as a free online public resource at www.brain-map.org.