Brain-CODE Helps Scientists Decode Neurological Disorders
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Brain-CODE Helps Scientists Decode Neurological Disorders

A new database, developed here in Toronto, is helping to advance brain research.

Neurologist and Brain-CODE user Evdokia Anagnostou, who also supplied this photo.

Ontario is a hotbed of research into the workings of the human brain, but scientists involved in this line of work have trouble coordinating their efforts. That’s why the Ontario Brain Institute created Brain-CODE.

“What makes Brain-CODE unique is that it’s an informatics platform, which is to say it’s a giant computer database,” said Jeffrey Coull, director of operations at OBI. “It collects multiple types of data across multiple types of diseases, and it’s very rare to do that.”

Brain-CODE, which launched earlier this year, contains many different types of data related to the study of human brains, including MRIs, genomics, behavioural information, and treatment statistics. The software brings up a chart with different diseases along the top, and types of data along the side. This gives users an easy way to look at what information is available, and how much of it there is.

The database includes information from Ontario researchers who are funded by the OBI. The idea is for it to allow scientists to check their theories against a much larger cross-section of humanity than would ordinarily be available to them locally.

The data is submitted by users, but only credentialed researchers are allowed access. In spirit, it’s sort of like a rarefied, subject-specific version of Wikipedia, which is helpful, because scientists who perform sophisticated research with the aim of getting to the root of complicated problems (the cause of autism, for example) need all the information they can get their hands on. With Brain-CODE, instead of having data from, say, 200 patients, these researchers could potentially have access to data from tens of thousands. The identities of patients in the database are all kept confidential.

It’s an unprecedented opportunity for autism researchers like Evdokia Anagnostou, a child neurologist at the Bloorview Research Institute. Brain-CODE allows her to look for correlations between autism and other brain diseases like Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s. The database is still in its infancy, so her present focus is on uploading her findings for other researchers to see. She says, however, that there is enormous potential in it.

According to an estimate from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 88 children born today will have an autism spectrum disorder, with severity ranging from mild social impairment to near-total mental isolation from the world. Scientists still don’t know what makes some cases more acute than others. Anagnostou thinks Brain-CODE data will accelerate research in that direction.

“You can start linking how genes affect brains, then how brains affect behaviour, and see how that can be manipulated by treatment,” she said.

Although Ontario—and, in particular, Toronto—has a great number of hospitals, universities, and institutes studying different brain diseases, nothing has united them in one cohesive database until now. Rarely do scientists from different disciplines sit down and have in-depth discussions about their work. Brain-CODE is an attempt to break down those barriers by providing open access to information from accredited institutes all over the world.

“It is the right time for it,” said Anagnostou. “There has been a lot of push for getting data in the public domain somehow.”