Topics » NEMO – New NIH Brain Initiative Cell Census Network Launched

Dr. Owen White
Dr. Seth Ament

IGS Investigators Part of NIH BRAIN Initiative

In Fall 2017, NIH awarded funding for a major new initiative to characterize the cell types in the mammalian brain, the largest component of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. The BRAIN Initiative Cell Census Network (BICCN), a network of integrated centers, collaborating laboratories, and data resources, will be funded by 11 grants projected to total about $50 million annually over five years. All data will be shared with the research community.

As part of the BRAIN Initiative, researchers at IGS will develop a data repository that is known as the Neuroscience Multi-Omic Archive or NeMO Archive , specifically focused on the storage and dissemination of ‘omic’ data from the BRAIN initiative and related brain research projects. The repository will eventually provide a catalog of omics data from tens of millions of cells in the mammalian brain, together with information about these cells’ morphology and physiology, and connections from these cell types to changes that occur in human diseases. Several IGS faculty are involved in the project, including Owen White (PI), Seth Ament, Anup Mahurkar, Michelle Giglio, and Lynn Schriml.

One thing we do here very well at IGS is to develop more scalable computational approaches that allow us to look at data sets of the size (of BICCN) more easily

Researchers from leading institutions in brain research will be collecting vast amounts of data. Owen White and the IGS Informatics Resource Center (IRC) team have developed expertise assembling data from multiple institutions and organizing it into usable formats, having led the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) data organization and analysis and other large-scale data collection projects. Data collection will be a vital part of the BICCN initiative.

Seth Ament is a neuroscientist with joint appointments with the Psychiatry Department at UM SOM and with IGS. He has expertise in integrating diverse genomic datasets into research involving brain function and disease.

“We know a lot regarding the diversity of neurons at the level of individual cells but we haven’t known how to categorize that information properly into structural and functional relationships and how each of those cells arise during development,” said Dr. Ament. “We are very interested in how particular cell types develop in healthy brains and how particular cell types become damaged or associated with risks for diseases of the brain.”

BICCN is structured into eight data generating projects. IGS is leading the genomics data archive and the University of Pittsburgh is leading the imaging data archive. National leaders in the field of brain research are all working together to align the data formats.

“We are working together to prioritize particular projects,” explains Dr. Ament, “We want to understand the variety of data sets and to understand the contributions of those cell types to psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders. One of our greatest challenges is that we are now able to produce so much data, even for experienced computational biologists, it strains our capabilities to go through it. That is one of the many central roles that Owen and his group have with this project.”

“One thing we do here very well at IGS is to develop more scalable computational approaches that allow us to look at data sets of the size (of BICCN) more easily and to do that in the context of cloud-based web accessible computational environments, using visualization and analytical tools,” said Dr. White. “We have software engineering capabilities here that other centers don’t have so we’re developing tools to pull data and scale from an archive like this, and to be able to integrate multiple datasets quickly and visualize patterns across dataset.”

The goal with BICCN and the NeMO Archive is to build resources that make this data accessible and to maximize community utilization.