Scientists are working on a massive project to map every brain cell

A human brain at a 2009 exhibition in Brazil.
A human brain at a 2009 exhibition in Brazil.
Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images

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The National Institutes of Health is taking another step in its ongoing effort to better understand the brain: It’s planning to spend $250 million on a project to map every brain cell.

The Salk Institute in La Jolla says it will lead the effort. CalTech, USC are among the other institutions participating. 

The project is the latest phase in the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative, or BRAIN, launched by  President Obama in 2013. 

The NIH says the goal of the latest BRAIN effort is to put together a "parts list" for the brain.

"Think, you find a computer, and you can recognize the main parts of the computer, but not all the details that make it work," said Margarita Behrens, a senior scientist at the Salk Institute in La Jolla. "A little bit the same happens with the brain."

Besides mapping the brain’s cells, the project will try to better understand how those cells interact with each other, she said. That will contribute to efforts to cure disorders like Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.

It will take a few years to put together the complete brain atlas. Some of the research will begin with mice, said Behrens, because for certain tests, "unfortunately, you can only look at [the human brain] post-mortem."