Mapping the genetic structure of the human brain.

Any Battlestar Galactica fan can appreciate this news if even from an artistic standpoint. The idea that the human brain can be figured out in such detail by humans -- with brains of their own -- is nuts. The theoretical repercussions are even more nuts. Imagine literally programming a brain as if it were a piece of hardware loaded with an operating system.

(Wired) The scientists here are mapping the brain. And while conventional brain maps describe distinct anatomical areas, like the frontal lobes and the hippocampus—many of which were first outlined in the 19th century—the Allen Brain Atlas seeks to describe the cortex at the level of specific genes and individual neurons. Slices of tissue containing billions of brain cells will be analyzed to see which snippets of DNA are turned on in each cell.

If the institute succeeds, its maps will help scientists decipher the function of the thousands of genes that help produce the human brain. (Although the Human Genome Project was completed more than five years ago, scientists still have little idea which genes are used to make the brain, let alone where in the brain they are expressed.) For the first time, it will be possible to understand how such a complex object is assembled from a basic four-letter code.

"The maps of the brain we currently have are like those antique maps people used to draw of the New World," says Allan Jones, chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute. "We can see the crude outlines of the structure, but we have no idea what's happening on the inside." Jones is in charge of making sure the atlas gets finished. He wears starched button-up shirts and crisply pleated khakis, and he looks like the kind of guy who has a drawer full of bow ties. "Studying the brain now is like trying to navigate a vast city without any driving instructions," he says. "You don't know where you are, and you have no idea how to find what you're looking for." (continued at WIRED | photo gallery)

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