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NIH’s BRAIN Initiative puts $500 million into creating most detailed ever human brain atlas | Science




BRAIN, the US’s 9-year-old, multi-billion dollar neuroscience initiative, today announced its most ambitious challenge yet: assembling the most comprehensive map of cells in the human brain. Scientists say the Brain Initiative Cell Atlas Network (BICAN), which was funded with $500 million over 5 years, will help them understand how the human brain works and how diseases affect it. John Ngai, director of the Brine Initiative, of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), says the BICAN program “will change the way we conduct neuroscience research for future generations.”

President Barack Obama launched, or brain research through the development of innovative neurotechnologies, in 2013. He began focusing on tools, then developed a program called the BRAIN Initiative Cell Census Network, which led to a set of papers in 2021. Studies collected data on traits Genomics, shapes, locations, and electrical activity of millions of cells to identify more than 100 cell types across the primary motor cortex—which coordinate movement—in mice, crustaceans, and humans. Hundreds of researchers participating in the network are now completing a cell count of the rest of the mouse brain. It is expected to become a widely used free resource for the neuroscience community.

Now, BICAN will distinguish and map neurons and non-neurons across the entire human brain, which contains 200 billion cells and is 1,000 times larger than a mouse brain. “It uses similar approaches but is expanding,” says Hongkui Zeng, director of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, which has received a third of BICAN’s funding. Zeng says the results of this effort will serve as a reference — a kind of human genome project for neuroscience.


Other groups will add data from human brains across a range of ancestors and ages, including fetal development. “We will try to cover the breadth of human evolution and aging,” says Joseph Ecker of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, who leads the BICAN studies of epigenetics, the study of genetic changes transmitted without changes in DNA. Ngai expects that BICAN studies several hundred human brains overall, although the researchers are just beginning to work on the details. “Sampling and coverage will be a big, big topic of discussion,” Ngai says.

A further $36 million over 3 years is announced today in funding for BRAIN Armamentarium, which will develop viral vectors and lipid nanoparticles to ingest and genetically modify specific types of brain cells. These tools will help scientists study cell function and develop treatments for disease.

A third project called BRAIN CONNECTS focuses on tracing the wiring diagrams in mammalian brains. Early next year it will provide $30 million in grants of up to 5 years. In all, the NIH has spent $2.5 billion so far on BRAIN, a number it expects to reach $5.2 billion by the end of 2026.


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