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Highlight: GPS for the Brain? BrainSpan Atlas Offers Clues to Mental Illnesses

Image from BrainSpan Atlas shows the location and expression level of the gene TGIF1 in a brain from 21 weeks postconception.

The recently created BrainSpan Atlas of the Developing Human Brain incorporates gene activity or expression (left) along with anatomical reference atlases (right) and neuroimaging data (not shown) of the mid-gestational human brain. In this figure, the location and expression level of the gene TGIF1 is shown in a brain from 21 weeks postconception.

Source: Allen Institute for Brain Science

Technologies have come a long way in mapping the trajectory of mental illnesses. Early efforts provided information on anatomical changes that occur over the course of development. In a step that has been hailed as providing a “GPS for the brain,” the BrainSpan Atlas of the Developing Brain, a partnership among the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Yale University, the University of Southern California, and NIMH—has created a comprehensive 3-D brain blueprint.25 The Atlas details not only the anatomy of the brain’s underlying structures, but also exactly where and when particular genes are turned on and off during mid-pregnancy—a time during fetal brain development when slight variations can have significant long-term consequences, including heightened risk for autism or schizophrenia.26 Knowledge of the location and time when a particular gene is turned on can help us understand how genes are disrupted in mental illnesses, providing important clues to future treatment targets and early interventions. The Atlas resources are freely available to the public on the Allen Brain Atlas data portal. Already, the BrainSpan Atlas has been used to identify genetic networks relevant to autism and schizophrenia.27,28 In both of these studies, the fetal pattern of gene expression revealed relationships that could not be detected by studying gene expression in the adult brain. As most mental illnesses are neurodevelopmental, mapping where and when genes are expressed in the brain provides a fundamental atlas for charting risk.

“A comprehensive, high-resolution anatomic and molecular atlas of the developing brain is a first step to understanding what can go wrong. Many neuropsychiatric diseases are likely the result of abnormal brain development during prenatal life. Knowledge of where and when a particular gene is used may lead to future treatment targets and early interventions.”

Ed Lein, Ph.D., Allen Institute for Brain Science

Highlight from Strategic Objective 2