|Here, cortical neurons grown in vitro are visible through a stain (Calretinin, in red) and a counterstain (Dapi, in blue). The high resolution begins to reveal the morphology, or shape, of cell bodies and axons in the individual cells.
She continued, “It’s like trying to understand how a car operates or how an orchestra produces symphonic music. We use the mouse visual system as a model to try to gain insights into the mechanism of brain function. Every day in the lab, we focus on the individual neuronal types … describe their molecular, anatomical and physiological properties, and examine what they do in the intact animal brain while the animal is behaving.… From this, we and others will then be able to further understand which components may break down and how those may affect the entire system during disease states.”
The institute’s previous work has produced high-resolution gene expression data mapped onto anatomically detailed brains of mice and humans and allowed the observation of the genome at work in the nervous system with the hope of developing targeted therapeutics for some of our most important diseases.
Zeng said the team now is “using molecular techniques to label specific types and populations of neurons, examine their connections, monitor their activities and manipulate their functions.”
The National Institute of Mental Health has estimated that 26.4 percent of adult Americans are dealing with some form of mental illness. Meanwhile, 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s at a cost of $200 billion a year.
Allen’s total commitment of $500 million is considered one of the largest philanthropic investments in basic neuroscience research, while his Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, along with his wife, Melinda, has given $28 billion to their Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is set on improving global development and health.
For a more detailed look at the institute’s work, see its April publication in the journal Cell, “Large-scale cellular-resolution gene profiling in human neocortex reveals species-specific molecular signatures” (DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2012.02.052).
Connor Bamford (email@example.com) is a Ph.D. student at Queen’s University in Belfast, U.K.