Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Virtual Voyage Through the Brain of a Mouse

Ashlee Vance

Mouse brain enthusiasts can finally relax. They have a place of their very own to hang out, swap stories and share information.

Researchers from the University of California, San Diego, have released something they’re calling the Whole Brain Catalog. At its core, the catalog is meant to serve as a repository for data gathered about the mouse brain. Scientists around the globe can opt to pop their brain studies into the catalog and help create a richer, shared set of information than what’s available at each individual research institution.

Mark Ellisman, a neurosciences and bioengineering professor at U.C.S.D., likens the project to Google Earth. He said scientists were trying to build a 3-D model of the mouse brain that could be explored at various levels, from the overall structure of the brain down to its most intricate features. Such an effort requires the scientists to harness an immense amount of data.

“If you talk about just looking at the wiring in the brain, that would require the equivalent resolution in Google Earth of being able to read the license plates on all of the cars in North America,” Mr. Ellisman said. “Seeing things that give the wiring their life like drug receptors and channels would be like seeing the bugs on all the windshields of the cars.”

Individual labs can gather data on this scale, but the U.C.S.D. researchers wanted a place to combine all the available information and make it open to scientists around the globe. The project has been financed by the Waitt Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization started by Ted Waitt, the co-founder of Gateway.

Scientists who want to tap into the Whole Brain Catalog can download a software application that does, in fact, behave much like Google Earth. It allows researchers to explore images of different regions of the brain and to burrow down into cellular structures. If Ammon’s Horn is what you’re after, just type the phrase into the search bar, and off you go.

Mr. Ellisman says he hopes that the Whole Brain Catalog will help unite researchers working in very specific areas and give them a more complete picture of the interplay between different parts of the brain.

“This gives you an immediate ability to see the domains that you are not so familiar with,” Mr. Ellisman said. “Someone working on the region of the brain that controls fear can see where the structures sit on multiple scales and where they interact with the rest of the components.”

The researchers at U.S.C.D. settled on the mouse brain for this project for a handful of reasons. First, scientists generally run a wide range of experiments on mice brains in a bid to replicate human disorders. And second, the mouse brain was of a reasonable size to study from a data standpoint. In addition, an agreement already in place in 15 countries has set standards for how data about mice is taken and shared.

Scientists have turned more and more to computer models like the Whole Brain Catalog to complement their lab experiments.

Mr. Ellisman said that just looking at the 3-D models generated by the computers and simulations of things like neuron growth could lead to unexpected revelations about the brain.

“I think humans are very visual animals,” he said. “And these visualizations open up an opportunity to do what we call discovery science. You put yourself in a new space that came from many, many experiments being mashed together.”

Posted via web from ahier's posterous