New for brain scientists: a census of neurons

The human brain is a noisy, busy place, teeming with diversity. To produce the wondrously complex mammalian behavior we take for granted every minute, cells of different sizes, shapes and chemical affinities buzz, hum, crackle and pop in conflict and cooperation with one another.

When everything is going right, this dazzling assemblage of cells is powerful, flexible and resilient. When something goes wrong, it can be a daunting jumble of squishy tissue. For those exploring the brain’s workings in sickness or in health, it’d be nice to have a comprehensive roster of players and their positions.

Now there is one. With the launch of its searchable and publicly available “Cell Types Database,” the Allen Institute for Brain Science has taken a first crack at establishing a comprehensive census of cells that neuroscientists might encounter in their explorations.

Like chemistry’s periodic table, Allen’s Cell Types Database is expected to create a standard listing of the brain’s building blocks, along with such relevant bits of information as where these cells are, what their shape and function are, and how they pass electrical signals to other brain cells near and far.

“Identifying neuronal cell types is essential to unraveling the mystery of how the brain processes information and gives rise to memory, perception and consciousness,” said Christof Koch, president and chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute.


In its inaugural release, the database begins to build a catalog of brain cells by identifying 240 kinds of neurons and characterizing their shape, electrical activity and shape. The fledgling atlas contains computer models and lab-generated images that simulate those cells’ electrical behavior when stimulated. Scientists will be able to download those models and run their own virtual experiments.

The first set of neurons described in the database comes from the visual cortex of mice. But future entries will show cells from the human cortex and will provide emerging information about how and which genes express themselves in different brain cells.

Allen Institute Chief Executive Allan Jones said the database -- the first piece of output in the institute’s 10-year effort to link brain activity to perception, decision-making and action -- will allow scientists to “speak the same language” as they explore the brain’s normal workings and what happens when disease or injury disrupts those workings.

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