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Allen Institute Unveils Mouse Spinal Cord Atlas


doi: 10.1097/01.NT.0000337657.44656.87

An initiative begun by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen and funded by a consortium of financial backers has launched the first “point and click” Internet atlas of the mouse spinal cord, with initial data on expression of some 2,000 genes to help researchers study CNS diseases.

The first phase of the project was launched in mid-July, and a complete genome-wide map of the mouse spine should be completed next year, according to Kelly Overly, PhD, research alliance manager for the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.

Because mice and humans share 90 percent of the same genes in the spinal cord and nervous system, the atlas will provide scientists and physicians with a tool for gathering new information and discovering new treatments for such diseases and conditions as spinal muscular atrophy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis, and spinal cord injury, one of the signature wounds of the Iraq conflict, Dr. Overly told Neurology Today in a telephone interview.

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In developing the spinal cord atlas, the institute followed the same organizational and scientific blueprint that it used to create the Mouse Brain Atlas several years ago, she explained. Investigators can immediately access the free online data to advance their research for spinal cord disorders.

Efforts to study spinal cord injury and disease have been hindered by the absence of a genome-wide map of gene expression, she noted, and the Allen Spinal Cord Atlas is designed to address this gap.

The Institute uses a unique funding model for biomedical research, a consortium of public and private entities — including the ALS Association, PVA Research Foundation, Wyeth Research, PEMCO Insurance, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and the International Spinal Research Trust, as well as numerous anonymous individual donors.

The entire atlas should take 12 months to complete, as researchers continue to upload high-throughput gene expression data for each tiny section of the mouse spinal cord, she said.

“Everything is moving forward — we're making good progress. A lot of the pieces were put in place with the Brain Atlas. We have the systems and the research teams, and the experience to anticipate any stumbling blocks.”

When completed next year, the spinal cord atlas will provide expression data on some 20,000 genes, including data from early and adult developmental stages. In addition, it will include gene data across the full length of the spinal cord as well as anatomical reference sections.

The Allen Institute is undertaking three other major projects designed to accelerate brain research and help scientists worldwide gain new insights into numerous diseases. In addition to the Allen Spinal Cord Atlas, the institute is creating the Allen Human Brain Atlas, designed to provide insight into gene expression in the human brain, and the Allen Developing Mouse Brain Atlas, designed to understand gene activity through multiple stages of development from birth to adult years.

The human brain atlas project will be completed in four years, and the developing mouse brain atlas project in two years. The Institute is currently seeking additional public, private, and foundation support for these projects.

Nearly one-quarter of a million Americans — including several thousand troops in Iraq — have suffered or suffer from spinal cord injury, while as many as 30,000 Americans suffer from ALS at any given time and multiple sclerosis affects 2.5 million people worldwide.

The data and tools are available free of charge at

©2008 American Academy of Neurology