New Brain Atlas Unveils 3-D Gene Map

It is being called a scientific breakthrough for a problem that affects about 26 percent of American adults, or 57.7 million people.

The problem: mental disorders. The breakthrough: the Allen Brain Atlas. It is a Web-based, 3-D map of gene expression in the brain of a mouse, created by the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen provided $100 million to launch the Allen Institute and the Atlas project in 2003.

After three years and a look at more than 21,000 genes at the cellular level, scientists say the atlas gives them an amount of data that has never been available until now.

"We've captured 85 million images. That would be like filling 20,000 iPods!" said Allan Jones, the institute's chief scientific officer, at a press conference Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

So how will looking at a mouse brain help humans? According to researchers, 90 percent of the genes found in mice have a direct counterpart in humans.

The atlas shows which areas of the brain can be affected by disease, which genes in those areas are turned "on" and which genes are turned "off." Scientists hope the atlas will help them better understand what is going on in the brains of people suffering from mental diseases and disorders, like autism, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Bill Thies, vice president of medical and scientific relations for the Alzheimer's Association, told ABC News he sees the creation of the atlas as a sign of progress. "They [mice] will accept human genes, which allows mice to exhibit the biochemistry of Alzheimer's in humans," he said. "The Brain Atlas will allow us to do research faster and to get some answers we may not have had before."

At Tuesday's press conference, David Anderson, a professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology, added that the amount of information provided by the atlas is just as important as the Human Genome Project -- a national research project that scientists believe identified all the genes in human DNA.

"The atlas can tell us where genes are, help us identify stem cells, and help us find out how the brain works," said Anderson.

The Brain Atlas project has already led to a number of significant findings. It reveals that 80 percent of genes are turned "on" in the brain. The atlas also indicates that many genes are turned "on" in more than one region of the brain. This finding alone will determine how scientists and doctors look at the benefits and potential side effects of drug treatments.

Researchers at the Allen Institute for Brain Science will now focus on specific regions of the human brain. They hope to one day answer critical questions about human brain disorders and diseases.

The Allen Brain Atlas is free and publicly available HERE.