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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Using genes to understand the brain's building blocks

Researchers at the Allen Institute for Brain Science have created a detailed taxonomy of cells in the mouse visual cortex based on single-cell gene expression, identifying 49 distinct cell types in the largest collection of individual adult cortical neurons characterized by gene expression published to date. The work appears in Nature Neuroscience.
The team developed a technique to isolate single cells from the adult mouse brain, and then obtained genome-wide gene expression data from these individual cells. Each cell expresses thousands of genes, making the cell classification problem an enormous computational task.
The team used computational dimension reduction techniques, which collapse genes with similar expression patterns into gene sets. When single cells were analyzed by clustering in this lower-dimensional space, 49 distinct groups appeared based on unique combinations of genes they express, including 42 neuronal cell types and 7 non-neuronal types.
The data from this single cell analysis approach agree with and complement the Allen Brain Atlas: a brain-wide gene expression atlas of the mouse brain.
This work is one more step toward assigning genes to specific cell types and then helping investigate what these genes do, how they work together, and how they ultimately make our nervous systems and us who we are.