The Salk Institute in San Diego, CaliforniaShare on Pinterest
The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego. Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
  • A $126 million project has been launched to map the human brain at the cellular level.
  • Researchers say the program’s goal is to better understand how the brain ages and how conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease progress.
  • They said new treatments such as gene therapies could emerge from the research.

When you walk the grounds of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, you can almost feel the presence of its namesake, the late scientist Jonas Salk, who gave the world the polio vaccine among other achievements.

Salk’s visionary legacy looms large in the Institute’s latest project to map the aging human brain.

In what appears to be a kind of neurological version of the Human Genome Project, the institute is seeking a profoundly deeper understanding of how the brain really works.

A five-year, $126 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will support a team led by Salk Institute scientists that will launch the new Center for Multiomic Human Brain Cell Atlas.

Part of the NIH’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, the project will focus on learning and describing the cells that make up the human brain in molecular detail.

It will also classify brain cells into more precise subtypes and pinpoint the location of each cell in the brain.

The team will take a close look at how these features change from early to late life. While the work is complex, the goal is relatively simple: to better understand how human brains work and age.

This will also establish a baseline against which scientists will be able to compare brains with neurological or psychiatric conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, autism, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Bing Ren, Ph.D., a professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) and a member of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, is a member of this Salk project.

“To sum it up, the program’s goal is to have a dynamic picture of the brain and an understanding of how brain cells and circuits act in time and space,” he told Healthline.

Ren said his lab at UCSD will look at chromatin modifications and gene expression. Chromatin serves as a platform for numerous cellular signals to influence gene expression.

“We need to dissect a Boeing 747. We need to decompose a very complex, well-made machine down to its circuits to understand how this beautiful machine works,” Ren said.

Among the most significant parts of this research is that it will give scientists a better understanding of neurological diseases and potentially provide treatments and even cures.

“The brain map we develop could help point disease researchers in the right direction — for example, we could say, ‘That’s the region of the genome, in that specific subset of neurons, in that part of the brain, where a molecular event goes awry to cause that disease,” Joseph Ecker, director of the Genomic Analysis Laboratory at Salk and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland, said in a press statement

Ultimately, Ecker said, this information might help the team design gene therapies that target only the cell populations where the treatment is needed — delivering the right genes to the right place at the right time.

The Institute will be awarded approximately $77 million of the grant funding, making it the largest single grant the Institute has received in its 62-year history.

“Essentially, we want to take millions, even hundreds of millions of brain cells, learn everything we can about their epigenetics and how their chromatin is arranged, and project them in a spatial context so we can see where these cells live and understand how all of the cells in any brain region are organized, and at any age,” Ecker said.

“At the moment, we have almost no data like that for the human brain,” he added.

Other experts outside the project are also optimistic about the research.

Howard Urnovitz, Ph.D., is the co-founder and chief executive officer of FBB Biomed, where he developed the first liquid biopsy for neurologic diseases.

“A well-funded project with brilliant scientists and leaders will always be the highest likelihood for cures,” said Urnovitz, who has received two approvals from the Food and Drug Administration for his HIV test and has been granted 22 patents.

“The Salk Institute has always been a leader in neurologic sciences,” he told Healthline.

“The brain is the most mysterious organ in the body and the more that can be invested in innovative neuroscience research such as brain mapping, the closer we will get to solving its mysteries,” said Heather Snyder, Ph.D., the vice president of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer’s Association.

“We look forward to seeing this project progress,” she told Healthline.