Understanding the neurophysiologic and molecular bases of mental illness, autism, and related conditions remains one of the most challenging frontiers of medicine and neuroscience because despite very prominent symptoms, there is little that clinical diagnostic techniques reveal. The recent report of the BrainSpan Atlas represents a major collaborative attempt to map the human brain from its gestational developmental stages to its adult form (Nature 2014 April 2 [doi:10.1038/nature13185]). Previous work has examined the histology and transcriptomic profiles of 900 neuroanatomical subdivisions (Nature 2012;489:391-9) of two adult human brains that characterized the transcriptomic relationships between different cell types and different cell regions.
Now, based upon four prenatal brains, the atlas displays the gene expression profiles of the developing brain and reveals that many neuropsychiatric disorders, including autism and schizophrenia, have identifiable developmental abnormalities. To what degree these brains are representative of healthy preterm humans is not entirely clear, but the insights gained are remarkable and will certainly contribute importantly to our understanding of these most enigmatic conditions.
Dr. Caselli is a professor of neurology and associate director and clinical core director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz. He has no relevant financial disclosures.