Bioengineers try to map gene activities of individual cells in human cortex

Bioengineers at the University of California, San Diego, have received a $9.3-million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to establish a single-cell genomics centre and develop a three-dimensional map of gene activities in individual cells in the human cortex.

Researchers believe understanding variations between individual cells within the same tissue may be critical to understanding the origins of diseases, including brain disorders. The cerebral cortex is the outer layer of neural tissue responsible for cognitive functions including memory, attention and decisionmaking.

 ''The cortex is a diverse and densely packed network of cells.  We can better understand how this whole system works by studying the transcriptional activities of individual cells,'' said Kun Zhang, a professor of bioengineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering and the principal investigator of this five-year, interdisciplinary project.

While many studies on human brain functions focus on the neuronal firing and transmission of electrical signals, the underlying activities of all genes in individual neurons and the supporting cells, called glia, represent another important aspect. It has long been recognised that individual neurons might play very specific roles in cognitive functions.

However characterising the activities of all genes in individual brain cells has been extremely difficult due to the technical challenges in handling single cells, extracting and characterizing individual RNA molecules.

"The development of new technologies that can detect differences between individual cells within the same tissue is crucial to our understanding of a wide variety of diseases," said NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins. "This Common Fund Program is an excellent example of how the NIH can accelerate the pace of biomedical discovery."