A project led by Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science has mapped out how genes get fired up in key areas of a rhesus monkey’s brain as it develops – and the results could help researchers unlock the mysteries surrounding autism, microcephaly, schizophrenia and other neurological conditions.
The gene expression map, laid out today in research published by the journal Nature, shows that rhesus macaque monkeys are much better models than the usual mice for humans when it comes to brain development. It also confirms the view that different neurological disorders follow dramatically different genetic pathways.
“The sets of genes that turn on early, and the sets of genes that turn on in the adult, shift dramatically,” Allen Institute neuroscientist Ed Lein, the study’s senior author, told GeekWire.
Like the genomes of mice and humans, a rhesus monkey genome contains all the instructions for building living tissue, including the brain. But different genes have to be turned on at different stages of development. The institute’s gene expression maps chart which genes are being expressed in which parts of the brain at a given time.
For the monkey project, five key brain regions were dissected and analyzed at 10 stages of development, ranging from 40 days into gestation to two years after birth.
Researchers focused in on the genes that are also associated with such conditions, and looked for the time periods in brain development when those genes are turned on.
They found that the timing meshed well with what other researchers have come to assume about brain development in humans. For example, the genes that are associated with microcephaly in humans tended to be turned on at an early phase of monkey brain development, when the progenitors of brain cells are dividing. Microcephaly, a condition that results in shrunken baby brains, is a hot topic nowadays because it’s the most serious health risk linked to the Zika virus.
In contrast, the genes associated with schizophrenia were expressed in the neocortex after birth. That’s consistent with the view that schizophrenia is a late-onset disorder. “It’s a completely different cell set that’s affected,” Lein said.
He said the genes associated with autism spectrum disorder are turned on during a middle period, bridging the pre-natal and post-natal stage.
One of the benefits of the gene expression map is that it shows which genes are turned on at the same time. “It’s a hook into much more complex molecular pathways,” Lein explained.
The map also provides a metric for how much more in tune the rhesus monkey is with humans, genetically speaking. Lein said 25 percent of the genes activated in a mouse brain are substantially different from human genes. In comparison, the differences in gene regulation between monkeys and humans amount to just 9 percent.
The monkey study, known as the NIH Blueprint Non-Human Primate Atlas, was supported by $8.5 million in grants from the National Institute of Mental Health. Lein said the data would be made freely available for researchers to download and analyze via the Allen Institute’s BlueprintNHPAtlas.org website.
This isn’t the end of the institute’s brain-mapping work, but Lein noted that “the technology of today is shifting.” Past efforts have done genetic analysis for regions of the brain, but future efforts are likely to zoom in on gene expression in single cells, he said.
“Generally, such a big sweeping survey becomes even more resource-intensive,” Lein said.
And that means neuroscientists, data analysts and project funders – including Seattle software billionaire Paul Allen, who has put hundreds of millions of dollars into the Allen Institute – may have to start playing in a higher key.