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Research Team Led by Salk Institute Scientists Aims to Map the Brain in Unprecedented Detail

A team of scientists led by researchers at the La Jolla-based Salk Institute for Biological Studies is embarking on a new project that will study the human brain — and how it changes over time — in exacting detail.

According to the La Jolla Light, the team will use funds from a five-year, $126 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The Center for Multiomic Human Brain Cell Atlas, as the project is dubbed, aims to provide detail on brain cells in unprecedented molecular detail, classify different brain cells into more precise categories, and pinpoint the exact location of each cell in the brain.

In addition to tracking how these data points change as brains age, the project will also aim to establish a baseline that will allow scientists to compare brains with neurological or psychiatric conditions — such as Alzheimer’s disease and depression — against more neurotypical brains.

“The brain map we develop could help point disease researchers in the right direction,” said Joseph Ecker, leader of the project and director of Salk’s Genomic Analysis Laboratory. “And 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 image of project leader Joseph Ecker is courtesy of Salk.edu

Along with Ecker, the project will include Salk Institute Researcher Professor Margarita Behrens, Bing Ren of UC San Diego, Xiangmin Xu of UC Irvine, and Ting Wang of Washington University in St. Louis.

The Salk Institute will be awarded $77 million out of the grant’s total funding. It marks the largest single grant in the institute’s 62-year history.

The team plans to examine 1,500 brain samples and focus mostly on epigenetics — the molecular-level events that influence whether genes are turned “on” or “off” at a specific time. According to Ecker, the project seeks to map data in a spatial context. That way, “we can see where these cells live and understand how all of the cells in any brain region are organized, and at any age.”

“At the moment, we have almost no data like that for the human brain,” he said.

About the author: Mike Peterson is a freelance journalist and writer based in North San Diego County. He’s written and worked for a number of local media outlets, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, the North Coast Current, the Oceanside Blade, and the Escondido Times-Advocate.

The banner image of the Salk Institute at sunset is courtesy of BommaritoArt.com