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Human Brain Project Celebrates Tenth Anniversary

By Nancy Touchette

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Researchers from around the world gathered this week at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Human Brain Project. The conference, “A Decade of Neuroscience Informatics: Looking Ahead,” highlighted the sophisticated technology being developed to study the brain and the challenges in sorting out the large volumes of data.

The Human Brain Project evolved from a 1991 report by the National Academy of Sciences, which recommended a central initiative to bring together scientists studying the structure and function of the brain. The first annual conference on the Human Brain Project was held at the National Institutes of Health in 1994.

This year’s conference focused on many of the technological advances in brain imaging. A major challenge has been developing ways to account for differences among individuals while creating detailed brain atlases. By combining microscopic images from post-mortem tissues with imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance, researchers have been able to develop extraordinary three-dimensional pictures of the brain.

One particularly exciting development is the creation of a genomic atlas of the mouse brain. Several groups, including the Paul Allen Brain Institute in Seattle, Washington, and Neurome, Inc. in La Jolla, California, have begun projects to map the activity of up to 20,000 genes in the mouse brain.

Floyd Bloom and his colleagues at Neurome have so far mapped the distribution of more than 100 genes throughout the mouse brain. And Mark Boguski and his colleagues at the Allen Brain Institute have published the distribution of a dozen genes on their Web site.

The conference also brought up the critical importance of sharing data and considered ways to make this happen.

“Some researchers want to keep their data to themselves,” said Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland. “The challenge now is to find incentives to encourage scientists to share and to develop centralized databases to facilitate the process.”

In a talk entitled “Sharing Neuroscience Data: Responsibilities and Challenges,” Cech said that the need to share data was especially important for neuroscientists who use functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, a technique that maps regions of brain activity.

“Imagine if scientists mapping the human genome had shared data by posting it on their individual websites,” said Cech. “That’s how neuroscience is dealing with fMRI imaging.”

Cech called for a centralized database that could hold data in a common format. He also suggested that journals require authors to deposit data in a freely accessible data base, and that data sharing be made a condition of receiving government funding.

The challenge will be to create a database in which researchers can deposit images and data in formats that can be easily shared. Eventually, such information could be used to help researchers understand how genetics and the environment influence brain activity and how disruptions in normal activity can lead to disease.

“We don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel with every study we do,” said Arthur Toga of the University of California in Los Angeles. “Eventually we would like to be able to relate all the different observations made by various research groups within the same atlas system. We want a system that will accommodate information from different sources.”

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