Researchers reported that a high-resolution map of the human brain in utero is providing hints about the origins of brain disorders including schizophrenia and autism. The map shows where genes are turned on and off throughout the entire brain at about the midpoint of pregnancy, a time when critical structures are taking shape.
Having a map like this is important because many psychiatric and behavioral problems appear to begin before birth, “even though they may not manifest until teenage years or even the early 20s,” says Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health.
“It’s a pretty big leap,” says Ed Lein, an investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle who played a central role in creating the map. “Basically, there was no information of this sort prior to this project.” “We’re talking about a remarkable process,” a process controlled by our genes, Lein says. So he and a large team of researchers decided to use genetic techniques to create a map that would help reveal this process. Funding came from the 2009 federal stimulus package. The project is part of the BrainSpan Atlas of the Developing Human Brain.
The resulting map, which is available to anyone who wants to use it, has already led to at least two important findings, Lein says. “The first is that many genes that are associated with brain disorders are turned on early in development, which suggests that these disorders may have their origin from these very early time points.” And the map tells researchers who study these disorders where in the brain they should be looking for signs of trouble, Lein says. The second important finding from the mapping project, Lein says, is that the human brain is different from a mouse brain in ways researchers didn’t know before. These differences could explain why a number of brain drugs that work well in mice have failed badly in people.
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