A Database Of All Things Brainy

May 14, 2015
Originally published on June 1, 2015 7:52 pm

When the brain needs to remember a phone number or learn a new dance step, it creates a circuit by connecting different types of neurons.

Scientists still don't know how many types of neurons there are or exactly what each type does.

"How are we supposed to understand the brain and help doctors figure out what schizophrenia is or what paranoia is when we don't even know the different components?" says Christof Koch, president and chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, a nonprofit research center in Seattle.

So the institute is creating a freely available online database that eventually will include thousands of nerve cells. For now, the Allen Cell Types Database has detailed information on 240 mouse cells, including their distinctive shapes.

"They look like different trees," Koch says. "Some fan out at the top. Some are like a Christmas tree; they fan out at the bottom. Others are like three-dimensional fuzz balls."

The database also describes each cell by the electrical pattern it generates. And eventually it will include information about which genes are expressed.

Once researchers have a complete inventory of details about the brain's building blocks, they'll need to know which combinations of blocks can be connected, Koch says. After all, he says, it is these connections that make us who we are.

"The fact that you remember very specific things — that first summer day when you kissed your first girl — that is due to the great specificity of your neural circuits," Koch says. "So that's what we have to understand."

The Allen Institute plans to release a database of different types of human brain cells next year.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're going to stay in your head for just a couple more minutes because researchers are learning more about how the brain is put together. They're creating a database to catalog the different types of cells that make your brain work. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: In order to remember a phone number or kick a soccer ball, the brain has to make a circuit by connecting different types of nerve cells. But scientists still don't know how many types of nerve cells there are or exactly what each type does. Christof Koch is president and chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science. He says the lack of knowledge about nerve cells is a big problem for researchers.

CHRISTOF KOCH: How are we supposed to understand the brain and help doctors figure out what schizophrenia is or what paranoia is when we don't even know the different components?

HAMILTON: So the Institute is creating a freely available online database of different nerve cells. Right now, it has detailed information on 240 mouse cells. Human cells will be added next year. Koch says the cells are described in several ways - for example, by their shapes.

KOCH: They look like different trees. Some fan out at the top. Some are like a Christmas tree; they fan out at the bottom already. Some are essentially flat. Others ones are like three-dimensional fuzz balls.

HAMILTON: Then there are the cell's electrical patterns.

KOCH: Some may fire (clicking tongue). Others may fire more burst-like (clicking tongue), a third type, (clicking tongue).

HAMILTON: The goal is to identify all the types of nerve cells used in brain circuits. Koch says it's these circuits that make us who we are.

KOCH: This makes up the specificity of your brain. The fact that you remember very specific things, you know, of that first summer day when you kissed your first girl, it is very specific memory, very crisp, and that is due to the great specificity of your neural circuits. So that's what we have to understand.

HAMILTON: One cell type at a time. Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.