Brain Science

Research Highlights

Our quest to understand the brain

The Allen Institute for Brain Science launched in 2003 with a goal to accelerate neuroscience research worldwide with the release of large-scale, publicly available atlases of the brain. Our research teams also conduct investigations into the inner workings of the brain to understand its components and how they come together to drive behavior and make us who we are. Read more about selected research studies below and keep an eye on this page for more Research Highlights coming soon: 

Building a “periodic table” of brain cell types

Our researchers are working to define the “parts list” of the brain by cataloging the different types of neurons and other brain cells in the human and mouse brains. Research teams are studying the brain cells’ detailed shapes, their electrical properties and the suite of genes each individual cell turns on and off, all different properties which can define a distinct brain cell type. Because so many neurological diseases afflict only certain types of brain cells, this catalog will help researchers develop tools to better study and ultimately target treatments to those cell types. Data from these coordinated research teams make up the Allen Cell Types Database.

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The brain’s wiring map

To understand the brain, we need to understand not only its building blocks, the cells, but how those building blocks fit together and interact with one another. Our researchers are working to define the mouse brain’s “microscale connectome,” the 3D map of how neurons connect to each other. In a collaboration with research teams at Princeton University and Baylor College of Medicine, funded by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, or IARPA, Allen Institute for Brain Science researchers are using a technique known as electron microscopy to map the billion synapses present in a cubic millimeter of brain from the mouse visual cortex, a piece about the size of a grain of sand. When it’s complete, this will be the largest piece of brain ever mapped at such detail. Access data via the newly launched MICrONS Explorer: A virtual observatory of the cortex.

In a related effort, another team of researchers is working to define the mouse brain “mesoscale connectome” by mapping the connections that different types of neurons make across the brain. Their goal is to understand the rules of how the brain is organized through its long-range connections. Data from this project is available through the Allen Mouse Brain Connectivity Atlas

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Reading the activity of live human brain cells in the lab 

Thanks to a unique collaboration with Seattle-area neurosurgeons, Allen Institute for Brain Science researchers are exploring the electrical properties of live human neurons. These precious cells come from patients who undergo brain surgery for epilepsy or brain tumors and agree to donate the small pieces of healthy tissue that have to be removed in the course of surgery. Our researchers are uncovering subtle but potentially important differences between human and mouse neurons of the same type, and are even exploring the properties of human neurons that have no rodent counterparts. 

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Observing the brain in action 

The Allen Brain Observatory takes a large-scale, standardized approach to studying neurons as they fire in a living animal. Researchers on the Observatory team are now able to watch — and ultimately to understand — how the mouse brain works in real time. Using mice that are genetically engineered so that different types of neurons glow when active, the research team measures the activity of individual cells in the mouse visual system as the animals observe different images and movies. Their ultimate goal? To understand the rules of computation that are used by brain cells and circuits to process visual information.

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Eavesdropping on the brain’s internal dialogue

Created in collaboration with the Allen Institute, imec, HHMI Janelia Research Campus and University College London, Neuropixels are thin silicon probes that can record from neurons in many parts of the brain simultaneously. Our researchers are now using these probes in the Allen Brain Observatory to listen to more than a thousand neurons’ conversations at once. Neuropixels make it possible to read out electrical activity from as many as nine visual areas in the mouse brain as the animals view images and movies. Ultimately, the researchers aim to map in detail how different parts of the brain work together to process visual information and use it to guide actions. 

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