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Hanchuan Peng, associate investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

When asked what the “BigNeuron” project is all about, Hanchuan Peng quickly stands up and moves toward the window. He points to different trees planted outside the Allen Institute of Brain Science office in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, and describes how each has a different shape, pattern, and structure.

921190CB-B873-4E29-AF63-8C11094A939A (1)“The neurons in our brain are very similar to trees — there are many different types,” he said.

Researchers have come a long way in the past 30 years as far as discovering not only how many “trees” there are in the human brain but also their shapes, sizes, and individual qualities.

Yet there is so much to be learned about the billions of neurons in our brains, and a new project led by the Allen Institute hopes to help scientists better understand how individual neurons impact the brain’s functionality.

Today the 12-year-old institute announced the “BigNeuron” project, a worldwide collaborative effort that will use some of the world’s fastest supercomputers to standardize 3D reconstructions of the thousands of branches that make up individual neurons.

Currently, Peng explained that researchers from around the world are using different standards, datasets, and programs when developing these 3D reconstructions on a computer. Since there are no standards to compare the algorithms used to create the reconstructions, it is difficult to compare the data sets as a whole. This has caused fragmentation.

alleninstitutebrainThe goal of “BigNeuron” is to use the supercomputers to “bench-test” algorithms submitted by researchers that will help define the best 3D methods of reconstructing individual neurons.

“For a computer to really be able to compare one neuron against another, we need to establish some sort of digital model,” Peng said.

Peng said that the project, which has 12 other initial partners from around the globe, won’t necessarily have a direct impact on helping cure brain diseases. But it nonetheless could have a huge impact in terms of creating more value out of the research done by scientists.

Paul Allen
Paul Allen

“This can be a critical step in our systematic understanding of the brain,” Peng said.

The Allen Institute will share much of work from BigNeuron with the public, including open-source tools that researchers and scientists can use for neuroscience studies, standardized protocols for neuron morphologies, and a library of definitions and algorithms.

Over the past decade, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has committed $500 million toward understanding the brain through his non-profit. The Institute, which now employs about 270 people — including several world-renowned scientists in brain research — is aiming to ultimately transform the treatment of related diseases and disorders including autism, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression.

The organization, which has been spread among several buildings in Fremont, plans to consolidate operations in a new 245,000 square-foot building in South Lake Union later this year.

In 2013, Allen also launched the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence to lead a new quest for the elusive goal of computers that can acquire human levels of knowledge, reason and understanding.

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