Neural reconstruction database benefits many areas of research

Bioengineering professor Giorgio Ascoli developed NeuroMorpho.Org, which stores large amounts of data needed to make computational models of neurons. It makes neuroanatomy research faster and more efficient. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Giorgio Ascoli, a professor of bioengineering in Mason’s Volgenau School of Engineering, and his team created NeuroMorpho.Org in 2006 to store the large amounts of data they needed to make computational models of neurons.

The open-access repository for neural reconstructions allows researchers to exchange data freely. The project makes neuroanatomy research faster and more efficient, says Ascoli, whose work is part of Mason's Institute of Biohealth Innovation.

The reconstructions have been used to investigate the pathways of Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, and memory capacity. They have also been used to investigate the effects of cosmic radiation on astronauts’ central nervous systems.

“Real-world applications may include solving neurological and psychiatric problems and designing next-generation computers capable of human-like cognition,” Ascoli says.

With such vital and varied applications, it is no surprise that over 1,700 scientific papers have been published using or describing data available in the NeuroMorpho.Org database.

Data provided by Michele Ferrante, program chief of Computational Neuroscience and Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), suggests that the database’s usefulness is not slowing.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has funded over 140 applications mentioning NeuroMorpho.Org in the title, aims, or summary. Those numbers translate to big money; more than $200 million is projected to be awarded and spent over the duration of the funded projects.

“Over the past decade, the field of digital neuronal reconstructions has soared, and so has NIH investments in this area,” Ferrante says. “The role of neuronal morphologies in brain and behavioral function remains an unresolved riddle. How does the shape of neurons and circuits shape our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors? We are just starting to scratch the surface here.”

Bengt Ljungquist, a research assistant professor at Mason and IT manager for the project, notes the exponential growth of the database since its inception and what it means for the project’s future.  

“As a now true big data project with more than 130,000 neurons, with a novel automated data processing pipeline allowing for even faster growth, there is increased load on the project IT infrastructure,” he says. “In addition, not only human scientists are interacting with the database, but also a growing number of computers directly analyze the data.

“With the current version of NeuroMorpho.Org using modern data cloud and virtualization technologies, we may now take the next step to develop new interfaces for both humans and computers to scale up interactions, deliver new analysis functions, and increase search speeds,” Ljungquist says.

The Institute for Biohealth Innovation (IBI) promotes and supports biohealth-related research activities of faculty, staff, and students at George Mason University. The IBI connects Mason researchers in biohealth with potential collaborators, both within the university and externally, to advance human health research. Learn more and hear from our researchers in this video