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Neuronal firing
A computerized model provides a detailed biophysical representation of a neuron’s firing pattern. (Allen Institute for Brain Science via YouTube)

Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science has created a publicly available database of computerized neuron models that could be used as building blocks to study how brains work in the real world.

The two sets of computer models are described in studies published by Nature Communications, and are available on the Web via The supporting code for the computer models can be accessed via the Allen Institute’s GitHub space.

One set consists of “generalized leaky integrate-and-fire” models, or GLIF models, that are based on data from 645 neurons. GLIF models are abstract mathematical constructs of brain activity that can be combined to simulate a network of millions of neurons in a mouse brain.

The other set provides 170 more detailed biophysical neuron models, accurately representing the mechanisms for the electrical activity of brain cells. These models are more complex, and thus require more computer power for network simulations.

Both sets of models draw upon the Allen Cell Types Database, a repository of cortical neurons from mouse brains and human brains.

“The publication of these mathematical-physical models of the individual components making up neural networks is an important landmark in our 10-year quest to understand the brain,” Christof Koch, the Allen Institute’s president and chief scientist, said today in a news release. “We now seek to understand how vast assemblies of these elements give rise to behavior, perception and the feeling of life itself — consciousness.”

Allen Institute neuroscientist Stefan Mihalas said the database could be used to address a wide range of questions. “The models can be used as building blocks for larger simulations, but also to understand how some cell types differ from the other. Researchers can classify cell types by only looking at model parameters,” he said.

As the database grows, detailed models of multiple cell types could be combined to model disorders such as epilepsy, autism or Alzheimer’s disease, and then tweaked to see how the brain might respond to a given therapy.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen created the Allen Institute for Brain Science in 2003 and has provided more than $500 million in support over the past 15 years.

The institute receives funding from other sources as well: Last October, the National Institutes of Health approved nearly $100 million in grants over five years to support the Allen Institute’s efforts to investigate cell types in mouse and human brains.

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