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Brain tissue
This brain tissue sample has undergone antibody labeling for the Aging, Dementia and TBI Study. Dark brown spots are amyloid plaques, which are implicated in Alzheimer’s Disease. (Credit: Allen Institute)

Scientists from Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science, the University of Washington and Group Health Research Institute have put together a first-of-its-kind database of brain imagery and medical data, to help unravel the potential links between brain injuries, aging and dementia.

The database for the Aging, Dementia and Traumatic Brain Injury Study is hosted at the Allen Institute’s Brain-Map.org website. For years, the institute has been mapping the connections between brain function and gene expression, but this database goes way beyond genetics.

The study’s brain samples come from a bigger study called Adult Changes in Thought. That longitudinal research effort, led by Eric Larson and Paul Crane of the Group Health Research Institute and UW, looks at health records and cognitive assessments from thousands of aging adults.

Under the aegis of that 30-year-long study, UW Medicine collected postmortem brain samples from 107 individuals, aged 79 to 102. The samples included tissue from the parietal cortex, temporal cortex, hippocampus and cortical white matter.

Each sample was analyzed to determine its disease state and protein data related to disease, as well as gene expression data. The samples were matched up with anonymized clinical data about the tissue donors. Then the brain readings were translated into imagery available through the new database.

“This collaborative research project aims to answer one of the most perplexing problems in clinical neuroscience: If a person suffers a traumatic brain injury during his or her lifetime, what is the risk of developing dementia?” UW neurosurgeon Richard Ellenbogen said in a news release.

“We simply don’t know the answer at this time, but some of the answers might be found in this comprehensive data set by people asking the right kinds of questions. This issue is important because of the inherent risk for everyone who plays sports, exercise, or in general participates in the activities of daily life.”

Allen Institute neuroscientist Ed Lein said the database should give researchers a better understanding of aging’s effect on the brain as well as the molecular indicators of neurological disease and the signatures left behind by traumatic brain injury.

Clinical records can be used to compare the brains of control subjects with those who have reported loss-of-consciousness events due to sports injuries, car accidents, falls or other mishaps.

“What we really hope to do is to understand what the consequences of these types of injuries or disease are, which could lead to treatments,” Lein told GeekWire.

Lein and his colleagues are already seeing trends in the data. However, they haven’t yet identified a distinctive genetic signature in patients who have suffered traumatic brain injuries or loss of consciousness.

“I actually view this as an optimistic outcome,” Lein said. If there’s no significant change in gene expression after a brain injury, that suggests such injuries don’t leave a lasting genetic scar.

The research required to create the resource was funded with a $2.37 million grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to UW and the Allen Institute. Software billionaire Paul Allen created the nonprofit institute in 2003 and has backed it with $500 million in contributions to date.

The institute said the Aging, Dementia and Traumatic Brain Injury Study is one of three updates now available via Brain-Map.org.

The Allen Cell Types Database has been updated to include gene expression data on individual cells, in addition to shape, electrical activity and location in the brain. And the Allen Mouse Brain Connectivity Atlas now includes the first public release of layer-specific connectivity in the visual cortex.

All of the institute’s databases are freely available to outside researchers, in line with Allen’s ambition to be a catalyst for scientific collaboration and discovery.

“There’s much more than traumatic brain injury that could be explored here,” Lein said.

Update for 6:30 p.m. PT April 26: This report has been updated with additional comments from Lein.

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