The Allen Institute for Brain Science was founded in 2003 in Seattle. It is an independent non-profit medical research organization, which performs innovative basic research and distributes its discoveries freely to researchers worldwide. Scientists there started the unique task of mapping the human brain to create an atlas of the human mind.
While conventional brain maps describe distinct anatomical areas –many of which were first outlined in the 19th century– the Allen Brain Atlas seeks to describe the brain at the level of specific genes and individual neurons. So far, we can see the basic outlines of the brain structure, but we have no idea what’s happening inside the brain.
Although the Human Genome Project was completed more than five years ago and it established what the genes are, scientists don’t still understand their biological functions and have little idea about which genes are used to make the brain and where in the brain they are “expressed” or “turned on”.
A. Jones, chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute, says: “The maps of the brain we currently have are like those antique maps which were used to draw the New World. Studying the brain now is like trying to navigate a vast city without any driving instructions. You don’t know where you are, and you have no idea how to find what you’re looking for,” he says. Shortly after the institute was founded in 2003, Jones and his team started thinking about how to industrialize the experimental process. Thanks to a team of new laboratory robots, what would have taken a thousand technicians several years can now be achieved in less than 20 months.
If the Allen Institute succeeds, its map will help scientists decipher the function of the thousands of genes that help produce the human brain. In addition, as the vast majority of mental illnesses and disorders –from schizophrenia to autism– have a significant genetic component, scientists at the institute hope that the atlas will eventually lead to new methods of diagnosis and more effective medical treatments when the project is completed in 2012. However, the project is just getting started.