UC Berkeley receives $65.5M from National Institutes of Health to spearhead brain research

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Experts from UC Berkeley are starting small — with mouse brains — to potentially develop cures for human brain diseases.

Part of the National Institutes of Health and launched by former president Barack Obama, the BRAIN Initiative warded a total of $65.5 million in grants Monday for the initiative’s Cell Census project. Campus researchers have partnered with Allen Institute and researchers from other universities to catalog a “cell atlas” of the whole mouse brain, which could then be used as a foundation for even more complex research on the human brain.

Campus neurobiology professor John Ngai is one of six principal investigators for the cell atlas project, which Ngai described as a big team effort. The campus research team contains researchers from various departments and labs across campus, including molecular and cell biology and statistics.

“To get science like this done, it requires scale,” Ngai said. “You need to assemble the best team, the best players and you also need leaders.”

As a part of the new wave of BRAIN Initiative awards, Ngai and his team will be able to connect with researchers around the world, including researchers from China, Sweden and Germany, according to Andrea Beckel-Mitchener, a lead developer at the National Institutes of Health involved with the BRAIN Initiative.

“It really does take a global effort, and the scientists have to have the will to share data and technology and work on a really aggressive timeline,” Mitchener said. “They’re generating really high quality data for other researchers to use. They’re really in it for the greater good for neuroscience in general.”

For the project, researchers will use CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology developed by UC Berkeley professor Jennifer Doudna. Campus assistant professor of neurobiology Hillel Adesnik and his lab will be testing the validity of CRISPR-Cas9 on genetically engineered mice that are created during the project. These mice will receive a foreign gene that is introduced and tagged by the experimenter. Ngai said this will ultimately provide researchers with “genetic access” to brain cells in order to catalog their types.

“This is the first project to propose to map the transcriptome of every neuron in the mouse brain, and then to classify neurons and determine how many subtypes there are from this data set,” Adesnik said in an email.

According to Adesnik, however, the number of neurons in the mouse brain is smaller than the human brain’s count by about 1,000 neurons, and that humans also have more complex cell types to consider.

Fifteen years ago, Ngai said he would not have dreamed of having the techniques that are available for neuroscience research today. In order to facilitate brain disease research, Ngai said researchers can use this technology to account for the many different cell types that exist within the brain.

“In one sense, we just need to know the basic system and how it works,” Ngai said. “That will allow us to better understand what happens with diseases.”

Contact Alicia Kim at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @aliciackim.