Paul Allen Gives $300 Million to Brain Research
The Allen Institute for Brain Science announced Wednesday that Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul G. Allen has donated $300 million to launch an effort to map the brain’s basic circuitry of perception.
Doubling its staff of scientists and technicians to more than 350 people, the Seattle-based nonprofit institute plans to build over the coming decade a series of “brain observatories,” computational tools designed to map all aspects of neural behavior. The aim is to systematically explore the roots of vision and decision-making by analyzing the billions of cells and synapses in the brain’s cerebral cortex, which plays a critical role in vision, memory, language and awareness.
“They want to really characterize the parts list of the brain and map all its circuits to see how they connect and communicate,” said neurobiologist Ed Boyden at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It is impossible for an ordinary lab group to bring all these pieces together.”
The Allen Institute operates more like a product-driven start-up than a traditional academic lab whose students are focused on research suitable for peer-reviewed publications. Since Mr. Allen founded it with a $100 million grant in 2003, the institute has made a name for itself by developing new technology for basic brain research, then making it freely available to scientists around the world.
“They are trying to bring something new and a little different to the understanding of how the brain works,” said neuroscientist Stephen Smith at Stanford University Medical School.
Last April, for example, the institute released a $55 million computerized atlas that combines many different imaging techniques to document human brain structure, biochemistry and genetics, along with new computational tools to analyze the data. So far, it has been adopted by 4,000 scientists to probe the brain’s biology. When they assembled the atlas, the institute’s scientists were surprised to discover that more than 80% of all known human genes are actively at work in the brain. The institute’s online atlas of the mouse brain gets 50,000 visitors a month.