Human Brains Assimilated by Computers at Last

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Plastic brains are kind of boring, and creepy, and impenetrable (hey, they’re plastic!). Real brains are so messy. Why not something you can poke and probe with a digital scalpel on your computer?

Wait no longer: The world’s first fully computerized brain map (note: not brain–still working on that) hit the grid yesterday after four years of research courtesy scientists at the Allen Institute for Brain Science located in Seattle, Washington. Not just any brain map, either, but one that’s both anatomically and genetically detailed.

Here’s why it matters: The brain, needless to explain, is incredibly complex. It’s also incredibly dangerous (and in several instances downright unethical) to tinker with someone’s brain while they’re still living.

Enter the Allen Institute, about $55 million in funding, some MRI scanners, and two donated male brains. Why male? According to Allen Institute CEO Allan Jones, because brain donors usually die accidentally or from heart attacks, something that occurs more frequently in men than women. Worry not, the group’s already at work on a female brain and expects to process 10 brains in total.

So the map, in theory, offers scientists a way to study virtual brains at unprecedented resolutions, in turn leading to future discoveries that further medical research (and for futurists, nearer/better do-it-yourself brain-building). The two brains mapped so far include 1,000 anatomical sites (all searchable) and upwards of 100 million data points that reference “gene expression” and each point’s underlying biochemistry. The research also suggests that human brains are much more similar than dissimilar, and that 82 percent of all human genes are expressed in the brain itself.

Imagine whipping up a 3D cross-section of all the points targeted by single serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Celexa or Lexapro, or isolating (with the ability to cross-reference) regions of the brain affected by injury or disease.

“Until now, a definitive map of the human brain, at this level of detail, simply hasn’t existed,” said Jones in a press statement. “The Allen Human Brain Atlas provides never-before-seen views into our most complex and most important organ.”

Described as “similar to a high-powered, multi-functional GPS navigation system,” the atlas will reportedly be used to examine “diseases and disorders, such as obesity, Parkinson’s disease, autism, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis — as well as those exploring how the healthy brain works.”

And as implied, perhaps to help propel Ray Kurzweil’s vision of the singularity forward, too.

(via New Scientist)