Margarita Behrens and Joseph Ecker
Margarita Behrens and Joseph Ecker at Salk. Courtesy of the institute

The UC San Diego School of Medicine, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and other institutions are getting a record five-year, $126 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to open the Center for Multiomic Human Brain Cell Atlas.

The center announced on Thursday is the newest addition to the NIH‘s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative, which seeks to “describe the human brain’s cells in unprecedented molecular detail, classifying them into more precise subtypes, pinpointing their locations in the brain and tracking how cellular features change over a lifetime,” a statement from UCSD reads.

“The goal is to better understand how neurotypical human brains work and age,” said Bing Ren, professor of cellular and molecular medicine and one of the effort’s principal investigators. “The project will establish a baseline against which scientists can compare brains with neurological or psychiatric conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, autism, depression, and traumatic brain injury which, in turn, can lead to new insights, treatments, and therapeutics.”

In the new project, researchers will examine 1,500 brain samples — 50 regions each in 30 human brain. The center will focus on gene expression patterns in cells as well as molecular events that influence whether genes are turned “on” or “off” in a given cell type or at a particular time.

“We could say `that’s the region of the genome, in that specific subset of neurons, in that part of the brain, where a molecular event goes awry to cause that disease,”‘ said Joseph Ecker, the new center’s leader, director of the Genomic Analysis Laboratory at Salk and an adjunct professor of cell and developmental biology at UCSD School of Medicine. “Ultimately this information might help us design gene therapies that target only the cell populations where the treatment is needed — delivering the right genes to the right place at the right time.”

The Center for Multiomic Human Brain Cell Atlas is part of the NIH’s BRAIN Initiative Cell Atlas Network and expands a five-year effort that began with mapping the mouse brain.

“Similar to the way we learned about space travel from short trips to the moon, the mouse brain mapping project taught us a lot about how to approach a much bigger brain, and the types of genomic information we would need to be able to truly map the human brain,” said Margarita Behrens, a research professor at Salk. “This project is an example of how fruitful teamwork can be in science — these types of projects cannot be accomplished in a single lab.”

Ecker estimates that his lab alone will generate 11 petabytes of raw data during the project — the equivalent of 171,875 thumb drives of 64 gigabytes.

City News Service contributed to this article