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Neurodevelopment viewed through big data lens


The formation of the human brain -which contains nearly 100 billion neurons making an average of 1000 connections each - represents an astonishingly complex feat of self-organisation. We're incrementally learning more about how this comes to be although our understanding is still only fragmentary.

In a new review, in press at Science, Oscar Marín, Director of the Centre for Developmental Neurobiology, and James Briscoe, a senior group leader from the Francis Crick Institute, discuss how big data is bringing a wealth of opportunity to understanding the development of the human brain and developmental neurosciences.

New technology and ever larger and higher resolution datasets are helping us to begin to address questions about the ontogeny, composition and function of the nervous system. Single cell molecular profiling methods allow the exploration of neural diversity with increasing spatial and temporal resolution. Advances in human genetics are shedding light on the genetic architecture of neurodevelopmental disorders, while innovations in technologies and methods are revealing plausible neurobiological mechanisms underlying these conditions.

Nevertheless, the utility of the data depends on the quality of the fundamental questions asked and how answers to these questions contribute to the narrative of human neurodevelopment and of neurodevelopmental disorders. One way in which the quality (and utility) of the questions asked can be monitored is through working in a cross-disciplinary fashion, to join up fragmented findings. Integrating data from anatomical, developmental, genetic and molecular studies has the potential to link cellular processes to functional and behavioural consequences.

The analysis of developmental trajectories using big data approaches allows previously unprecedented insights into the development of the human brain and may enable the investigation of differences among multiple individuals, allowing for the real life heterogeneity we see every day.