This atlas is expected to accelerate research into the causes and treatment of brain diseases
A leading team of international brain researchers aims to map the nearly 200 billion cells in the human brain according to their type and function. A project worth about $110 million. Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) is developing data visualization techniques to make the vast amount of complex data that leads to more insightful results. This atlas is expected to accelerate research into the causes and treatment of brain diseases.
Biomedical imaging professor Baudouin Lilyvelt describes the BRAIN Initiative® Cell Atlas Network (BICAN) program as a huge project. “The US National Institutes of Health has made $500 million available to gain more insight into the different types of cells in our brains,” says Lelieveldt. BICAN is also considered the brain variant of the Human Genome Project, an exceptional scientific effort aimed at defining the entire human genome. LUMC is participating in a recently awarded $110 million subproject that aims to identify cell types and functions in the brain using the latest spatial scale technologies.
Lelieveldt and his colleagues are computer scientists and say they are involved in a small part of this project. But that does not make their role unimportant. “You can imagine that this project is generating a huge amount of data, and it will be our job to make this data box more transparent,” says Lelieveldt. “We try to extract a clear compressed message from all the data, as if you had to reduce the world’s thickest book into a thin picture book in its essence.” They use the Cytosplore Viewer software that they developed themselves within Medical Delta and in close collaboration with Dr. Thomas Höllt of TU Delft. LUMC and TU Delft have been working together in this field for some time, including within the Medical Delta AI Computational Life Sciences scientific program.
Although the entire project is led by the Allen Institute for Brain Science in the United States, the BICAN program is a true team effort. Research groups from many leading American universities, such as Harvard, as well as European and Asian universities, participate. The most detailed atlas of the human brain to date is expected to be completed within five years.
And then? “Then many pieces of the puzzle will fall into place,” says Lelieveldt. “It will give researchers around the world more insight into exactly how our brains work and what lies behind various brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s. It will accelerate the development of treatments.” Lelieveldt considers it a great honor to be a part of this project. “I really have to pinch myself sometimes. These are very expensive and complex experiments that are not financially viable for individual universities, so the possibilities and scale of the project seem almost endless. And they are, for us computer scientists, a really huge data set to work with.”
Read more about the project on the Allen Institute website.
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LUMC will help build the most detailed atlas of the human brain to date
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