LUMC to help build most detailed atlas of human brain to date

29 November 2022
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A leading team of international brain researchers wants to map the approximately 200 billion cells in the human brain according to their type and function. A project involving around 110 million dollars. The Leiden University Medical Centre (LUMC) is developing data visualisation techniques to make the huge amount of complex data that emerges from it more comprehensible. This atlas is expected to accelerate research into the origin and treatment of brain diseases.

A massive project, is what Professor of Biomedical Imaging Boudewijn Lelieveldt calls the BRAIN Initiative® Cell Atlas Network (BICAN) programme. "The National Institutes of Health in the United States have provided 500 million dollars to gain more insight into the different types of cells in our brain," says Lelieveldt. BICAN is also seen as the brain version of the Human Genome Project, an extraordinary scientific effort that aimed to map the entire human genome. The LUMC is involved in a recently awarded 110-million-dollar subproject that aims to map cell types and their function in the brain using state-of-the-art so-called spatial omics techniques. 

Picture book

Lelieveldt and colleagues are computer scientists and, by their own admission, involved in a small part of this project. But that does not make their role unimportant. "You can imagine that this project generates a huge amount of data, it will be our job to make this mountain of data more insightful," says Lelieveldt. "We try to distil a clear compact message from all the data, as if you had to reduce the world's thickest book to a thin picture book with the key points." To do this, they use the Cytosplore Viewer software they developed themselves within the Medical Delta, and in close cooperation with Dr Thomas Höllt from TU Delft. 

Although the entire project is led by the Allen Institute for Brain Science in the US, the BICAN programme is a true team effort. Research groups from many leading US universities, such as Harvard, but also European and Asian universities are involved. It is expected that in five years the most detailed atlas of the human brain to date will be ready.


And then what? "A lot of puzzle pieces will fall together," says Lelieveldt. "It will give researchers around the world more insight into how exactly our brain works and what underlies various brain diseases like Alzheimer's. It will accelerate the development of treatments." Lelieveldt considers it an honour to be part of this project. "I really have to pinch myself sometimes. These are extremely expensive and complex experiments, which are not financially feasible for individual universities, so the possibilities and scale of the project seem almost endless. And it is, for us computer scientists, a truly monumental dataset to work on." 

Read more about the project on the Allen Institute website.