- A $126 million project has been launched to map the human brain at the cellular level.
- The researchers say the program’s goal is to better understand how the brain ages and how conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease develop.
- They said new treatments such as gene therapies could emerge from the research.
Walking around the grounds of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, you can almost feel the presence of its namesake, the late scientist Jonas Salk, who gave the world the polio vaccine among other achievements.
Salk’s visual legacy looms large in the institute’s latest project to map the aging human brain.
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A five-year, $126 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will support a team led by Salk Institute scientists that will launch the new Center for Atlas of Human Polyatomic Brain Cells.
Part of the National Institutes of Health’s Brain Research Through the Innovative Neurotechnology Development Initiative (BRAIN), the project will focus on learning and describing the cells that make up the human brain in molecular detail.
It will also classify brain cells into more precise subtypes and determine the location of each cell in the brain.
The team will take a closer look at how these features have changed from one early stage to the next. While the work is complex, the goal is relatively simple: a better understanding of how human brains function and age.
This will also create a baseline by which scientists can compare brains with neurological or psychiatric conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, autism, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Bing Ren, PhD, professor of cellular and molecular medicine at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) and a member of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, is a member of this Salk project.
“To sum it up, the goal of the program is to get a dynamic picture of the brain and an understanding of how brain cells and circuits work in time and space,” he told Healthline.
Ren said his lab at the University of California, San Francisco, will look at chromatin modifications and gene expression. Chromatin acts as a platform for many cellular signals to influence gene expression.
“We need to dissect a Boeing 747,” Ren said. “We need to take a very complex, well-made machine down to its circuits to understand how this beautiful machine works.”
One of the most important parts of this research is that it will give scientists a better understanding of neurological diseases and potentially provide treatments and even a cure.
“The map of the brain that we’re developing can help point disease researchers in the right direction — for example, we could say, ‘This is a region of the genome, in that specific subset of neurons, in that part of the brain, where the molecular event is going’,” said Joseph Ecker. MD, director of the Salk Genomic Analysis Laboratory and an investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland, said in a news release that this disease is skewed to cause this disease.
Ultimately, Ecker said, this information may help the team design gene therapies that target only the groups of cells that need treatment — delivering the right genes to the right place at the right time.
The Institute will receive approximately $77 million in grant funding, making it the largest single grant the Institute has received in its 62-year history.
“Essentially, we want to take millions, even hundreds of millions of brain cells, and learn everything we can about their epigenetics and how their chromatin is arranged, and present them in a spatial context so that we can see where those cells live and understand how Ecker said cells in any brain region are organized and at any age.
“At the moment, we don’t have nearly any data like that of the human brain,” he added.
Other experts outside the project are also optimistic about the research.
Howard Ornovitz, Ph.D., is the co-founder and CEO of FBB Biomed, where he developed the first liquid biopsy for neurological diseases.
“A well-funded project with brilliant scientists and leaders will always have the highest potential for a cure,” said Ornovitz, who has received two Food and Drug Administration approvals for HIV testing and has 22 patents.
“The Salk Institute has always been a leader in neuroscience,” he told Healthline.
“The brain is the most enigmatic organ in the body, and the more we invest in innovative neuroscience research like brain mapping, the closer we are to solving its mysteries,” said Heather Snyder, PhD, vice president. Medical and Scientific Relations at the Alzheimer’s Association.
“We look forward to seeing the progress of this project,” she told Healthline.
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