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or more than a decade, the Allen Institute for Brain Science has been digging into a simple question with labyrinthine answers: How does the brain work?

The group’s latest effort, announced Wednesday, allows researchers to peer into a mouse brain to see how individual cells react to visual stimuli.

To do that, they show the mice movies. Seriously. The mice watch clips from nature shows, and also this tracking shot from the 1950s thriller “Touch of Evil.”

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We asked Allen Institute scientist Amy Bernard about the project.

Why start with the visual cortex?

We can set a fairly simple assay for evaluating it by allowing mice to basically watch a movie.

While they watch a movie, we can look through a little window into the brain and acquire images at a very high resolution that can show us what cells are active … And we can then ultimately understand which cells are engaged in the circuit behavior of the mouse perceiving visual information in the cortex.

How similar is the mouse brain to the human brain?

At the level of the parts, the mammalian brain — which both mice and humans and whole lot of other warm, fuzzy creatures are mammals — structurally, these brains are very similar.

However, it’s known that humans have much more elaborate visual acuity. … But they have enough similarity with the overall structure that there’s a lot we can create a parallel to by looking at the mouse in terms of the basic circuitry.

How is this new effort different from the Allen Institute’s previous maps of brain function?

Our past work has focused on creating what we consider more sort of static atlases that give a description of the structure that’s present in the mouse and the human brain from a molecular and cellular perspective.

What this new project aimed to do was essentially start creating a map that would allow us to provide functional information at a cellular level to different parts of the brain. Much like we have the Hubble Telescope to look into the far reaches of outer space, the goal here is to have a systematic approach to literally peer into the mind.

What’s next?

We’re just beginning the process of analyzing the data. One of the things that’s unique to the Allen Institute is, we will generate the data and release it on our website immediately for the entire community to use.

We’ve created the raw data and usable web portals and computational tools for the community to use, but we’re hoping the discovery is a crowdsourced effort.

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