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Introducing the Allen Cell Types Database

May 14, 2015

There are 86 billion neurons in the adult human brain, and like snowflakes, no two are exactly the same. Brain cells are found in a dizzying array of intricate shapes, have different electrical patterns and functions, and express different genes. Sorting these cells into “types” is an enormous and complex challenge, but before we can hope to understand our brains, we need to create a rich list of its building blocks.

The Allen Cell Types Database is a new tool to help scientists create that list, and to understand what makes one type of cell different from another.

“Identifying neuronal cell types is essential to unraveling the mystery of how the brain processes information and gives rise to perception, memory and consciousness,” says Christof Koch, Ph.D., President and Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science. “This is the first resource of its kind to bring together multiple types of data—shape, position in the brain and electrical activity—in a single searchable database anywhere on the planet.”

Because cells can be sorted by several different characteristics, the cells in the Allen Cell Types Database are profiled in multiple ways. Using small electrodes, scientists first deliver a series of electrical impulses to cells and measure their responses. Computational scientists use the results to create models that mimic the cells’ behavior, which can be used to run virtual experiments and see how cells with different electrical patterns would communicate with one another. Researchers then fill those same cells with dye in order to capture their shapes in high resolution images, and in some cases, to create digital 3D reconstructions of the cells.

This first release of data includes information on more than 240 cells in the visual cortex of the mouse brain. Future releases will contain genetic profiles of each individual cell and will also include information on human cells.

The highly standardized information in the Allen Cell Types Database will help create a common language for researchers around the world to use in observing, measuring and ultimately sorting cells into types.

For more information on the Allen Cell Types Database, see our press release.

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