NIH BRAIN Initiative Cell Census Network meets its first major goal

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A central circle with multiple colored patches inside. The colored patches represent a visualization of the mouse MOp transcriptomic taxonomy. The colored patches are overlaid with small black dots representing mapped neuronal cells. Surrounding the central circle are pictures of various types of neurons in colors that coordinate with the patches used in the central circle (pinks on left and greens and blues on the right). Interspersed with the images of the neurons are spike graphs showing neuron electroph

Findings from the NIH BRAIN Cell Census Network (BICCN), an international collaborative effort by more than 250 scientists at more than 45 institutions across 3 continents, appear as 17 associated papers published in a dedicated October issue of the journal Nature, with ten additional papers also seeing publication in Nature Neuroscience and other journals.

Directing a large-scale research collaboratory, such as the NIH BRAIN Initiative, requires not only an understanding of the processes and procedures that go into administering and organizing research on a large scale, but also a deep knowledge of how research is conducted and how scientists work together to achieve common goals.

Before Dr. John Ngai joined NIH as Director of the BRAIN Initiative, he was a principal investigator for one of many projects comprising the NIH BRAIN Initiative Cell Census Network (BICCN). His unique perspective as both a researcher and an administrator on this project makes it all the more exciting for us to announce the first major milestone of that effort 17 papers focused on research results from the BICCN published in the October 7 issue of Nature. The papers, anchored by a flagship article, detail an atlas of the mammalian primary motor cortex. The atlas—the result of an international collaboration—gives unprecedented insight into the principles underlying the diversity of brain cell types, their locations and intrinsic physiological properties, and the connections they make with other cells in the brain. The project also provides a publicly available resource that may one day help researchers translate animal models to humans.

To learn more, visit the press release and read the accompanying Director’s Message from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Why is this research important? The atlas ultimately provides a parts list that helps us better understand how information is processed by the cells and neural circuits in the primary motor cortex—an area of the brain that directs the movement of the body—across mice, non-human primates, and humans. This work provides the knowledge and tools needed to pursue a full accounting of all the cell types that comprise the brain, their characteristics, and how they differ from individual to individual.

What further sets this project apart is the collaboration across labs, institutions, and continents that worked to integrate approaches and information from different tools and technology in a way that provided a comprehensive look at what constitutes the brain at the cellular level. 

So where do we go from here? The initial results of BICCN described in the paper grouping set the foundation for future research efforts that dive deeper into the structure and function of cells in the mammalian brain. These studies may include efforts to understand how the brain matures and develops, as well as research examining the roles that distinct cell types play in the creation of complex thought and behavior.

Dive in to the Nature articles today. Want to explore further? Visit the Allen Institute for more on BICCN data and tools.

Image credit: Tolias/Nature