UTHealth Houston receives BRAIN Initiative grant

By Caitie Barkley, Office of Public Affairs

GQ Zhang, PhD - BRAIN Initiative Grant
GQ Zhang, PhD

The National Institutes of Health has awarded a five-year, nearly $5 million grant, to establish a coordinating unit for biostatistics, informatics, and engagement to advance knowledge about the interacting neurons of the human brain.

A group including UTHealth Houston, the Allen Institute, and the Broad Institute was among the four recipients of the CUBIE grant, marking UTHealth Houston’s entrance into the larger NIH BRAIN Initiative Cell Atlas Network (BICAN).

The BRAIN Initiative aims to accelerate the development and application of innovative technologies, enabling researchers to share data in order to produce a revolutionary, new dynamic picture of the human brain that, for the first time, will show how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact in both time and space.

“Overall, we will leverage data science to maximize the value of the tremendous amount of information generated from the latest biological, imaging, and sequencing technologies for a better understanding of neurological functions and disorders,” said GQ Zhang, PhD, vice president and chief data scientist for UTHealth Houston and the project’s principal investigator. “Working at an unprecedented collaborative scale, we will broadly share resources and technology to accelerate the understanding of human brain cell types and their organizational principles to construct an open-access digital brain cell reference atlas, setting the stage for translating such discoveries into new ways to treat, cure, and even prevent brain disorders.”

Additionally, the CUBIE grant will inspire neurological research by making data findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable through community-wide efforts.

The CUBIE will be composed of four elements: 1) a common sequencing data processing pipeline; 2) a shared imaging data processing pipeline; 3) a comprehensive brain cell knowledge base; and 4) an engagement and outreach element to coordinate research within and beyond the BICAN.

“This award is a recognition of UTHealth Houston’s strength in data science and innovation as a whole,” said Zhang, professor in the Department of Neurology, co-director of the Texas Institute for Restorative Neurotechnologies, and holder of a joint appointment in the School of Biomedical Informatics and School of Public Health. “Through this national collaborative with other CUBIE and BICAN awardee institutions, UTHealth Houston will stay at the forefront of neuroscience research and make new contributions to the NIH BRAIN Initiative.”

Principal investigators co-leading the project with Zhang include School of Biomedical Informatics professors Hua Xu, PhD, who is also associate dean for innovation at the school, and W. Jim Zheng, PhD. Additional investigators include Rashmi Abeysinghe, PhD; Licong Cui, PhD; Yan Huang, PhD; Xiaojin Li, PhD; Cui Tao, PhD; and Shiqiang Tao, PhD, all faculty members with the School of Biomedical Informatics and/or the Department of Neurology.