London, March 14 : The Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington, has launched a 55-million-dollar project to create a three-dimensional map depicting the activity of about 20,000 genes across the human brain.
Experts hope that the four-year-project will transform studies for neuroscience and brain disease.
"The Human Genome Project was the 'what', and our project is the 'where'," New Scientist magazine quoted Allan Jones, the institute's chief scientific officer, as saying.
The Allen Institute has already created a similar atlas of the mouse brain, which it unveiled in December 2006.
Using their mouse atlas, a team of researchers at the Swedish Neuroscience Institute in Seattle studied two genes, BEX1 and BEX2, which seem to be silenced in a form of brain cancer called glioma.
The researchers believe that an atlas of the human brain should be even more helpful in understanding what goes wrong at the gene level in brain cancer and other diseases.
David Anderson, one of the Allen institute's scientific advisers, says that comparisons between the mouse and human brain atlases should also yield insights into the evolution of our advanced cognitive abilities.
Since the human brain is about 2000 times larger than the mouse brain, Allen institute scientists consider their new project to be a much bigger challenge.
As regards the mechanism to be followed in the course of the project, the researchers have revealed that they will divide the human brain into between 500 and 2000 anatomical regions, and then study gene activity by washing extracts from tissues in each region across "gene chips" that can record which messenger RNA is present.
Once the initial phase of the project completes, the institute's scientists will perform "in situ hybridisation" -- the same method as was used to produce the mouse atlas -- across the whole brain for up to 500 genes with the most interesting patterns of activity.
Besides undertaking the human brain atlas project, Allen institute scientists are also set to begin two other projects.
While one project will be a study of the activity of around 4000 mouse genes at different stages in embryological and juvenile development, the other is aimed at will making an atlas of gene activity in the mouse spinal cord.