Yale Awarded $4.6 Million to Build Database of Neuroscience Findings for Human Brain Project

Yale University has been awarded $4.6 million from the Human Brain Project to help organize the huge volume of neuroscience research data being generated by scientists.

The Human Brain Project, which is coordinated by the National Institute of Mental Health, was established in 1993 to fund research in the new field of neuroinformatics.

Informatics is the science of handling information. The best example of bioinformatics, says Gordon Shepherd, professor of neuroscience at Yale School of Medicine, is the sequencing of genes and proteins in the human genome project.

The four-year grant, entitled “SenseLab: Integration of Multidisciplinary Sensory Data,” was awarded to Shepherd, Perry Miller, professor of anesthesiology and director of the Yale Center for Medical Informatics, and Michael Hines, research scientist in the Departments of Computer Science and Neurology.

“The human genome project has depended not only on rapid sequencing methods, but just as much on the building of databases so that genes and proteins can be identified and compared, grouped into families, analyzed for disorders, and manipulated in research,” Shepherd said. “Neuroinformatics has as its goal to do the same for other kinds of data in neuroscience.”

Shepherd said he and his two co-principal investigators have been developing a database of olfactory receptor genes and proteins to aid in the sequencing of this enormous gene family, which consists of up to 1,000 members - the largest gene family in the genome.

One innovation is a special database where users can deposit unpublished sequences and run searches to detect whether there are other similar sequences still unpublished. The two laboratories can then communicate on the steps to be taken to finish the job.

“This is one of the first examples of a database of unpublished data, a sensitive issue because workers are reluctant to share data that is not yet published, and databases risk drowning in masses of unpublished data if the databases are not carefully structured,” Shepherd said.

Miller and his colleagues construct the databases and carry out fundamental research on database architectures and tools. The third co-investigator, Hines, is the creator of NEURON, one of the leading programs for computer modeling of neurons and their properties.

In addition to the olfactory database, SenseLab has databases containing key properties of different types of neurons, and computer models of the neurons to assist in interpreting experiments. Shepherd said a current goal is to develop efficient ways to deposit data to the databases so they can be used widely to understand human brain function and disease.

“For this to happen,” he said, “an important change needs to take place in the culture of neuroscience: the revolutionary idea that it is to everyone’s advantage to share data as soon as it is published by depositing it in databases that are widely accessible over the Web.”

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