Brain atlas aims to find causes of autism, schizophrenia

A comprehensive three-dimensional atlas of the developing human brain that incorporates gene activity and other data is outlined this week in the journal Nature. The project, called the BrainSpan Atlas of the Developing Human Brain, is funded by the National Institutes of Health, and aims to help researchers answer questions related to the development of conditions such as autism and schizophrenia.

An announcement from NIH outlines the project, part of President Obama's Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, explaining that this "big science" endeavor highlights the transcriptome, where and when genes are turned on in the brain and anatomy of the human brain during mid-term pregnancy.

"The BrainSpan Atlas becomes very powerful when one can understand where and when a particular gene is used," lead study author Ed Lein, Ph.D., of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, says in the announcement.

Lein and his fellow researchers studied four donated, intact, high-quality human prenatal brains from preterm stillbirths. Used as a framework for their atlas, two were from 15 to 16 weeks and two were from 21 weeks post-conception.

"Many neuropsychiatric diseases are likely the result of abnormal brain development during prenatal life," Lein says. "An anatomically precise molecular atlas of the brain during this time period is a first step to understanding how the human brain develops normally and what can go wrong."

Last September, the BRAIN Initiative received approval for high-priority research projects from NIH.

The initiative was first alluded to in the president's State of the Union Address in February 2013, and officially was launched by the White House last spring. In a press conference touting the announcement, Obama called the knowledge that potentially could be gained through the project's efforts "transformative."

Last year, a team from the U.S. Department of Energy developed a guide to gene-enhancers in the cerebrum to benefit research into the causes of some neurological diseases--a publicly accessible internet-based data collection of data which identifies a region in the brain where thousands of gene-regulating elements necessary for cognition, motor functions are emotions are found.

To learn more:
- read the announcement from NIH
- see the study in Nature

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