Washington Ideas Forum 2014

Crowdsourcing Your Brain

A neural GPS could lead to some groundbreaking discoveries in the field of genetics.

(Dierk Schaefer / Flickr)

Imagine taking a road trip with an ancient map. You know what you want your destination to be, but you have no idea how to get there, or what it looks like. To find your way you have to make an educated guess, but the data you’re working with is practically obsolete.

It sounds like an impossible task, but it’s one that neuroscientists do every day in their pursuit to track gene activity in the brain. Over the past decade, the Allen Institute from Brain Science has been working to design a way to make this job easier by creating a map of the human brain. Completed in 2011, the Allen Brain Atlas, which is available online for free, plots the human cortex down to individual genes, allowing scientists to decipher the processes of drugs, mental disorders, and more.

“If you want to understand the action of drugs, you want to see where those genes are turned on. And for the first time, we can actually do that,” said Allan Jones, chief executive officer of the Allen Institute, in a 2011 TED Talk that has amassed over 700,000 views. Jones joined the Institute as its second employee; now, he manages close to one hundred.

In order to create the map, Jones’ team had to work with medical examiners to procure fresh brains to study. “We were seeking normal human brains, and there’s a lot of criteria by which we’re selecting them,” Jones explains. Specifically, they look for healthy brains from 20- to 60-year-olds who died of natural causes and have no history of psychiatric disease or habitual drug use. From there, the Institute’s scientists slice, section, and laser the brains so that they can be read down to the most minute gene expression. At any point in time, over 25,000 genes can be turned on in the brain; the Institute has collected data on all of them.

The long-term effects of this data have yet to be seen, but Jones notes that scientists have already started to thank him and his team for their work. Wired predicted that the fields of drug discovery and human genetics will be the first to feel the Atlas’ immense impact. In the meantime, the Institute is expanding its project via a new ten-year plan that seeks to examine three separate brain processes: the storage and processing of information, the basic structures that underlie function, and the development of cells that control thought.

“The tools are there,” enthuses Jones, near the end of his TED talk. “This is truly an unexplored, undiscovered continent. This is the new frontier.”

And with his help, that frontier has become a little easier to navigate.

You can see Allan Jones speak at The Atlantic’s upcoming Washington Ideas Forum.