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Managing complex data about the brain

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2001 - Spring


In recent years, the state of knowledge about the human brain—whether at the level of molecules, cells, or entire signaling pathways—has increased so much that it has given rise to a whole new field of study. The science of neuroinformatics looks for ways to sort and store these floods of data that will keep them widely accessible, open to interaction with other data and amenable to continual revisions and updates. A big step forward took place in October, when the NIH-supported Human Brain Project awarded a $4.6 million grant to the School of Medicine for the establishment of a multipurpose, neuronal database on the World Wide Web.

The four-year effort of developing the site, known as SenseLab, is headed by Gordon M. Shepherd, M.D., D.Phil., professor of neurobiology, along with colleagues Perry L. Miller, M.D., Ph.D., professor of anesthesiology and director of the Yale Center for Medical Informatics, and Michael Hines, Ph.D., research scientist in the departments of Neurology and Computer Science. “The purpose of the site is to support research on the integrative actions of neurons and circuits, in the same way that the Human Genome Project has so effectively supported research on genes and proteins,” said Shepherd.

Within this Web site, users can work with data from each of SenseLab’s five databases interactively. The databases focus on neuronal models (including models that can be manipulated onscreen), membrane properties of neurons, neurotransmitter receptors and ion channels, olfactory genes and their proteins, and odor molecules. In addition, users may search the databases by neuron or category of neuron, as well as by neurotransmitter, receptor or electrical current. Efforts are now under way to enhance the site with links to brain atlases on the Web and to other databases, such as archives of brain images and of the anatomy of different types of neurons. The Yale scientists are also developing more effective ways to add data from electronically published journal articles into the SenseLab databases by means of automatic search tools. In Shepherd’s view, “It’s an exciting time to be in on the creation of a new field that will be crucial to future research in neuroscience.”

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