The Allen Institute companions with AWS to create the primary map of the mind

Amazon Web Services logo at the Web Summit in Lisbon.

Henrique Casinhas | Sopa Pictures | flare | Getty Images

Just as the periodic table is fundamental to chemistry and the Human Genome Project revolutionized modern genetics, researchers at the Allen Institute for Brain Science have joined forces with it Amazon Web Services to create what could become a “transformative” new resource for the field of neuroscience.

AWS announced Wednesday that its technology will help the Allen Institute create a map of the human brain called the Brain Knowledge Platform. This platform, the first of its kind, is designed to be a complete reference of individual cells in the brain and will eventually serve as the world’s largest open-source brain cell database.

The Allen Institute uses single-cell genomics technology to build the new platform. Researchers measure the genes used by individual brain cells to create a ‘cell fingerprint’, and cells with similar fingerprints are grouped into ‘cell types’, resulting in a high-resolution map of the entire brain.

Once the reference is complete, scientists should better understand the connections between genetics and various cognitive functions. Researchers believe the platform could provide insights into why diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s occur.

“This is really like the brain’s periodic table,” said Dr. Ed Lein, senior researcher at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, on Wednesday during a presentation about the platform in Washington, DC “It’s being revealed in a much greater complexity than we’ve ever had access to before.”

The Allen Institute is a non-profit research institute based in Seattle, Washington. Comprised of a number of different institutes, including one that focuses on neuroscience, it is perhaps best known for producing a number of different extensive data resources.

But while the Allen Institute is no stranger to data, there are hundreds of billions of cells in the brain, so creating a reference like the Brain Knowledge Platform means researchers are grappling with vast amounts of data.

“We’re running into these huge, huge data size issues right now,” Lein said during a briefing with reporters on Wednesday. “The amount of data is getting bigger and bigger.”

Therefore, the Allen Institute uses cloud computing and machine learning from AWS to standardize and consolidate complex brain data in one place.

When researching genetics and imaging, scientists often work with petabytes and even exabytes of data. dr Rowland Illing, director of international health in the public sector at AWS, said at the briefing that consuming 40 petabytes of data would require someone to watch 4K video 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 100 years.

The amount of data available to researchers is expected to continue to grow in the coming years, but Lein said there is plenty of brain data in the field of neuroscience as well. The problem, he said, is that much of it is disorganized and decentralized, making it difficult for researchers to access it.

The Allen Institute plans to use AWS technology to successfully interpret this disparate data, even if it’s stored in different formats and in different locations. Lein said hopefully this will further democratize access to knowledge and bring parts of the neuroscientific community together.

“While this is still in its infancy, the goal of the Brain Knowledge Platform is to transform this fragmented landscape of neuroscience information into a unified ecosystem,” he said.

The Allen Institute will work to build the Brain Knowledge Platform over the next five years. Lein said it’s still in the early stages, but the potential of the technology is immense.

“If we can do that, imagine the impact on the field,” he said. “We can unite the different parts of the discipline that currently cannot communicate with each other. We can accelerate our understanding of brain function as well as new approaches to treat disease.”

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