Rats: the new brains on the Internet

by Peter Kauffner

Internet users could soon be surfing a three-dimensional map of a rat brain, thanks to some University computer science and neuroscience researchers.
About 20 researchers, who together compose the Center for Neuroscientific Databases, have worked on the rat brain project for three years.
“The purpose of the project is to rationalize the enormous amount of neuroscience data that’s out there — rationalize it in a way that allows the user to pick out a location in the brain and find out the chemistry and function of that location,” said George Wilcox, a University professor of pharmacology and co-director of the center.
Part of the reason why there is such a tremendous amount of research available on rat brains is the similarity of rat brains to human brains. Wilcox said the graphical database would help researchers anticipate the effects of various drugs and therapies on brains, thereby reducing the need for expensive human and animal testing.
Chris Honda, an associate professor of cell biology and neuroanatomy and a center member, said database users will be able to point and click on an area of the brain map in order to enlarge a specific section.
“You should be able to focus all the way down to a single cell,” he said.
Honda said the growing amount of brain research data has created a need for a database that can be easily accessed by anyone around the world.
“The traditional method of going through the published literature and correlating the data is just not adequate given the amount of data in this field,” he said. “A major problem is getting researchers to donate their raw data. People are just not used to making such information available.”
Honda said many researchers tend to concentrate on getting their results published, and center members have to convince people to use their data in a new way.
The project is funded partly by the University and partly by a $155,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
The foundation grant is part of the Human Brain Project, a group of 16 federal agencies that coordinates funding for research on human and animal brains.
But money has gotten tighter for the center recently, mainly because of competition for brain research dollars, said John Carlis, the center’s co-director and an associate professor of computer science.
So far, he said, the center has worked exclusively with data on rat brains because there are few human brains available for study. He also said rat brains have the advantage of being nearly identical to each other, which means that research from different sources can be easily fit together.
“Human brains have a wider variance. You take two rats and their brains are pretty much alike,” Carlis said.
One aspect of the center’s work involves taking brain images and correlating them to particular brain locations.
Nickolaos Papanikolopoulos, an assistant professor in computer science, matches the images using microscopes or magnetic resonance imaging, which obtains a cross-sectional image by passing charged particles through an object.
The center, in collaboration with researchers in Britain, is also creating an Internet database catalog of the molecules that make brains work. Wilcox said the molecular biology database should be available sometime next month.
He said the brain mapping project will allow researchers to search different areas of rat brains without leaving their homes.
Referring to himself in the third person, Wilcox said, “my vision is George in his pajamas searching the brain and going to a location that is of interest to me, and looking around and seeing the environment and what kind of chemicals are there.”