Correlating Data Sets on a Broad Scale to Enhance Understanding of Brain Structure, Function, and Disease


Project:Biomedical Informatics Research Network (BIRN)
PI: Mark Ellisman, Professor, Neurosciences and Bioengineering, UCSD; Steve Potkin, Professor, Psychiatry, UCI; Bruce Rosen, Professor, Radiology, Harvard Medical School; G. Allan Johnson, Director, Center for in Vivo Microscopy, Duke University Medical Center
Funding: National Center for Research Resources, NIH


Biomedical researchers and information technologists have established a national cyberinfrastructure to enhance scientific understanding of the brain and improve treatment of brain disorders by enabling data sharing and correlation on a scale never before achieved. This project, known as the Biomedical Informatics Research Network (BIRN), teams 16 Biotechnology Resource Centers and General Clinical Research Centers (GCRCs) located at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities. Together, they are implementing a "standard" computational, data analysis, and networking infrastructure to share, compare, and cross-correlate brain image data to support more comprehensive studies across differing populations (including healthy individuals, patients with brain disorders, and species that are representative of human diseases) and image-acquisition devices and techniques. The BIRN Coordinating Center, led by Mark Ellisman at UCSD, provides a "standard issue" node to each site (a Grid computing rack with three Linux-based computers, 1-10 terabytes of storage, Oracle database, the SDSC Storage Resource Broker, and Gigabit network access), oversees tool development, and manages distribution and storage of the vast quantities of data.

BIRN consists of three test bed projects: Morphometry BIRN (human brain structure), Function BIRN (human brain function), and Mouse BIRN (comparisons between mouse brain structure and the human brain). As it grows, this infrastructure is expected to embrace other organs, diseases, and species that have implications for explaining human neurological disorders, benefiting the biomedical community at large. And, because the infrastructure and tools developed will be flexible and extensible, they will have application to many other fields that rely on data to support scientific inquiry.

"BIRN is establishing the type of large-scale, collaborative research environment needed to solve the most complex biomedical problems that face us today."
– Mark Ellisman, PI of the BIRN-CC project

BIRN is not only providing a technological foundation to support research activities on a more productive level. It’s also changing the sociology of the scientific enterprise by rewarding collaboration. Those researchers that contribute their data in turn will be able to access, and use for subsequent studies, relevant data contributed by other researchers.

How might this infrastructure be used? Steven Potkin, director of the Brain Imaging Center at UCI, is the PI of the Function BIRN test bed project, which focuses on neuronal signaling in people with schizophrenia. His project will leverage the clinical resources of several GCRCs to compare brain scans of small groups of patients who have experienced the onset of the disease, including those who have yet to be treated and those who are undergoing treatment.

Mark Ellisman,, 858-534-2251
Steve Potkin,, 949-824-8040