Scientists are using AI to make an atlas of human brain cells

Allen Institute is partnering with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to build a Brain Knowledge Platform. 
Sejal Sharma
Representational image of a brain
Representational image of a brain


Advances in our understanding of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s have been significant, but they are far from complete. Neither the diagnosis nor the current medical practices are adequate.

To change this, the Allen Institute for Brain Science is partnering with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to build a Brain Knowledge Platform. 

With funding from the National Institutes of Health and AWS’ artificial intelligence and machine learning tools, scientists at the Allen Institute will create a map of the brain to advance treatment for brain disorders by synthesizing research at a cellular level.

“Despite a huge amount of investment, we haven’t yet come up with solutions for the main brain disorders,” said Ed Lein, a senior investigator at the Allen Institute. “We’re awash in information, but it’s not centralized or synthesized.”

The team wants to create a first-of-its-kind brain map, which would be the largest open-source database of brain cell data in the world. It will “compile and standardize massive datasets on the structure and function of mammal brains,” said a press release.

It’s like an atlas of brain cells

The map will be based on single-cell genomics technologies. These new technologies measure genes within individual brain cells, which helps scientists better understand a brain’s cellular complexity and the cognitive functions provided through the genes. These highly detailed cell atlases will help researchers understand the origins of disease and, eventually, allow clinicians to pinpoint why diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s occur, the press release said.

The team hopes that the knowledge base that this platform provides will enable researchers to integrate information across all mammalian biological systems.

“This knowledge platform will enable researchers to make new discoveries that are not possible with current infrastructure,” said Shoaib Mufti, Allen Institute’s head of data and technology. “Once we start to connect pieces of information together, and we can connect data from the healthy brain to information from a diseased brain, that's where the magic is going to happen.”

The brain has approximately 200 billion cells. Storing this size of data is a huge task. And that’s where AWS comes in. Cloud computing is what enables this data to be stored, analyzed, and accessed. As an open-source tool, this data will be used by doctors seeking treatments and cures for brain diseases.

"AWS machine learning empowers research organizations to uncover new connections and discoveries with purpose-built AI services," said AWS’ Allyson Fryhoff. "Allen is using advanced cloud technologies like ML to further accelerate their findings in a cost effective and scalable way. We're inspired by their work to unlock never-before-seen insights about the human brain, and we look forward to the many brain research breakthroughs to come."

The collaboration aims to achieve better diagnosis and treatment options for neurodegenerative disease which affect over one-fifth of the American population and costs the economy $1.5 trillion a year.

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