EXOME

all the information, none of the junk | biotech • healthcare • life sciences

A rainbow of neurons

A rainbow of neurons

In the Allen Cell Types Database, neurons are meticulously reconstructed and assigned colors based on their electrophysiological properties.

Photo courtesy of the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

Prepare the mouse brains!

Prepare the mouse brains!

In the Allen Institute's electrophysiology lab, mouse brain tissue samples (in the numbered wells) are kept alive so that researchers can extract individual neurons for experiments.

Aaron Oldre

Aaron Oldre

Oldre is a research associate in the electrophysiology lab, where the electrical properties of neurons are measured.

Photo courtesy of the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

Staci Sorensen

Staci Sorensen

Sorensen is a scientist at the Allen Institute. She is working to help define the range of physical characteristics of mouse neurons in the part of the brain that handles visual information.

Spiny neuron

Spiny neuron

Spiny neurons are excitatory---that is, they transmit information throughout the brain.

Image courtesy of the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

Aspiny neuron

Aspiny neuron

Aspiny neurons are inhibitory---that is, they slow down and regulate brain function. Think of them as traffic signals that keep order.

Image courtesy Allen Institute for Brain Science.

A variety of brain samples

A variety of brain samples

The tiny samples at bottom, center, are mouse brains. The rest are human brain samples.

A human brain sample with Nissl stain

A human brain sample with Nissl stain

Nissl stains are used to highlight anatomical structure, but they don't give detail down to the cell level.

A human brain sample with H&E stain

A human brain sample with H&E stain

Hemotoxylin and eosin stains are used to check sample quality.

David Poston

David Poston

At Xconomy's annual Seattle biotech forum May 6, the institute's COO Poston discussed the role of nonprofit and academic research groups in Seattle's biomedical community.

Photo courtesy of Bo Jungmayer, Fred Hutch News Service

Xconomy Seattle — 

The biotech world has brains on their mind today with the launch of Denali Therapeutics, a mega-startup with lofty goals of developing drugs for Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

A big problem in finding treatments for those diseases is how little we know about the brain itself. One group making those explorations and sharing them with the world is the Allen Institute for Brain Science, one of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s myriad Seattle-area ventures.

I was in Seattle last week and had the chance to meet several people from the institute, tour its labs, and hear about a project making its public debut today.

With the Allen Cell Types Database, the institute aims to catalog and classify the types of neurons that fill the brain. It’s a task the institute staff likens to building the periodic table of elements in chemistry. (They’re starting with mice; future versions will have human neurons.)

There are other cells in the brain, but neurons—86 billion of them, by some estimates—run the show. No one knows exactly how many kinds of neurons we have, but the Allen researchers want to create a standard taxonomy to describe them. So far they have detailed 240 individual neurons by their shape, genetic profile, electrical activity, location in the brain, and more.

The institute is putting the database online, as well as software tools that outside researchers can use in their own work.

Xconomy tends to focus more on science that’s closer to a business proposition, but the Allen Institute is squarely an early-stage research group, teasing out and sharing new, fundamental information about how the brain works.

We’re making an exception today, in part because we like to post pictures of brains and cells. (See slideshow.) There’s another reason. As COO David Poston described during a panel discussion at our Seattle biotech forum last week, the institute wants to start licensing its ideas and technology in the future. It’s not likely to become a drug discovery or development partner, as many academic and research groups are doing these days. But the tools and software developed there to probe and analyze the mysteries of the brain might be worth spinning out into companies down the road, Poston said.

The institute isn’t ready to discuss specifically what might get spun out, or how quickly. But the willingness is there, and top executives Poston, CEO Allan Jones, and CTO Chinh Dang are no stranger to the for-profit sector, all having worked at biotechs at some point in their careers.

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.

  • Nathaniel Middleton

    The link to the celltypes page is broken- it appends a %20 to the end of the link when you click on it: “http://celltypes.brain-map.org/%20”
    Found in the source: “<a href="http://celltypes.brain-map.org/%20"&quot;