Mapping the Brain's Inner Language ; Scientist Aims to Decode How the Mind's Neurons Produce Behavior

Article excerpt

R. Clay Reid and his colleagues at the Allen Institute for Brain Science are working with mice to decode what a mind's neurons are saying to each other to produce behavior.

When R. Clay Reid decided to leave his job as a professor at Harvard Medical School to become a senior investigator at the Allen Brain Institute in Seattle in 2012, some of his colleagues congratulated him warmly and understood right away why he was making the move.

Others did a bit of headshaking. He was, after all, leaving one of the world's great universities to go to the academic equivalent of an Internet upstart -- albeit a well financed, very ambitious upstart created in 2003 by Paul Allen, one of the co-founders of Microscoft.

Still, "it wasn't a remotely hard decision," Dr. Reid said. He wanted to mount an all-out investigation of a part of the mouse brain. And though he was happy at Harvard, the Allen Institute offered not only great colleagues and deep pockets, but an approach to science different from the university environment. It was already mapping the mouse brain in fantastic detail and specialized in the large scale accumulation of information into atlases and databases available to all of science.

Now it was expanding, trying to merge its semi-industrial approach to data-gathering with more traditional science driven by individual investigators. Dr. Reid, as a senior investigator, leads a group of 100 and works with scientists, engineers and technicians in other groups. Without the need to apply regularly for federal grants, he can concentrate on one piece of the overall puzzle of how the brain works. He is trying to decode the workings of one part of the mouse brain, the million neurons in the visual cortex, from, as he puts it, "molecules to behavior."

There are many ways to map the brain and many kinds of brains to map. Although the ultimate goal of most neuroscience is understanding how human brains work, many kinds of research can't be done on human beings, and the brains of mice and even flies share common processes with human brains.

The work of Dr. Reid, and scientists at Allen and elsewhere who share his approach, is part of a surge of activity in brain research, as scientists try to build the tools and knowledge to explain -- as well as can ever be explained -- how brains and minds work. Besides the Obama administration's $100 million Brain Initiative project, and the European Union's $1 billion decade-long Human Brain Project, many private and public research efforts focus on the human brain, others on nonhumans, like Dr. Reid's.

While the Human Connectome Project, whose work is spread among several institutions, aims for an overall picture of the associations between parts of the human brain, others have set their sights on drilling down to deeper levels. The Connectome Project at Harvard is pursuing a structural map of the mouse brain at a level of magnification that shows packets of neurochemicals at the tips of brain cells.

At Janelia Farm, the Virginia research campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, researchers are aiming for an understanding of the complete fly brain -- a map of sorts, if a map can be taken to its imaginable limits, including structure, chemistry, genetics and activity. …