Paul Allen’s Big Bet to ‘Uncover the Essence of What Makes Us Human’

Following his second brush with cancer a couple of years ago, billionaire Paul Allen had some time to think about the legacy he’ll leave, beyond being the co-founder of Microsoft. Yesterday, he made clear that he wants to be the guy who helped spark new understanding of the human brain.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the workings of the human brain, and awed by its enormous complexity,” Allen said at a press conference announcing his new $300 million commitment to brain science. “Our brains are many magnitudes more advanced, in the way they work, than any computer software.” He added: “Our dream is to uncover the essence of what makes us human.”

There was a lot more ambitious rhetoric going around yesterday at this press conference, in which Allen announced his plan to supercharge the efforts of the Seattle-based nonprofit Allen Institute for Brain Science. The four-year, $300 million commitment from Allen brings his total support for the nonprofit center to more than $500 million since its founding in 2003. This massive new push for brain science drew press attention from the big guns at the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Forbes, Bloomberg News, and Time, as well as a litany of local biotech power brokers. Lee Hood of the Institute for Systems Biology, Larry Corey of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Ken Stuart of Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, and Chris Rivera of the WBBA were among those who turned out, and generally beamed about Allen’s big new contribution.

“It’s enormously valuable, exactly the right thing to do,” Hood said afterward, noting that the Allen Institute has adopted the Institute for Systems Biology’s multi-disciplinary “big science” approach. Corey, who personally buttonholed Allen after the press conference, said “It’s wonderful for Seattle.”

Paul Allen, chatting with Larry Corey, the president of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, after the press conference.

For those who missed the story yesterday, here’s the gist. The Allen Institute will roughly double in size, from 185 people today to 350 over the next four years, to carry out a new mission that charges way beyond what it has done in its first nine years. So far, the institute has created unique, functional gene expression maps of the mouse brain, the human brain, and spinal cords. All of this is put out in the public domain, and is freely accessible to researchers at universities, biotech companies, and pharmaceutical companies. CEO Allan Jones said the institute hopes to complete its sixth human brain map by the end of this year.

The three new initiatives are hugely complex, and to my ear, sounded breathtaking in their scope and ambition. “The job gets a lot tougher now. We’re going to tackle some of the biggest challenges in science today,” Allen said. “My commitment doesn’t just continue the work of the institute—it greatly expands scope of institute. We hope to fuel more discoveries in neuroscience.”

So what does the institute plan to do with that money? Here’s a basic rundown of what the institute’s three new initiatives are about, based on the very speedy descriptions of chief scientist Christof Koch (thank goodness for digital recorders, otherwise I would never have been able to get everything he said.)

—First, the institute will seek to better understand how the brain stores, encodes, and processes information in networks. The institute plans to build what it calls “brain observatories” of the cerebral cortex in mammals. These observatories will be made up of a range of sophisticated instruments and computers to “exhaustively identify, catalog, record, intervene in the cognitive networks underlying visual perception, visual behavior, and visual consciousness in the mouse,” Koch said.

—Second, the institute will seek to create a comprehensive catalog of the types of neurons in the human and mouse cerebral cortex. “We want to create an exhaustive and comprehensive taxonomy,” Koch said. “Expanding on our past Atlas work, we will use the brain observatories to ascertain the behavior, shape, form, the connections and biochemistry of these cells.” When complete, it will be the first full picture of the brain’s cellular building blocks. “We’ll count and classify every neuron in the mouse visual system, and visualize their activity throughout the brain, from eyes to muscles in mice,” Koch said. Unlike functional MRI imaging tests of today, which look at regions of the brain that get activated during certain activities, the Allen Institute looks to drill much deeper. “Our brain observatories will be able to listen to individual neurons,” Koch said. “That’s critical because it’s the neurons that are the atoms of perception, of thought, of memory, of consciousness.”

With the emerging technology of what he called “optogenetics”—sort of like “deep-brain stimulation on steroids”—Koch said “we’ll be able to turn groups of specified neurons on or off at will, and to observe the effect of this manipulation on the behavior of the animal.” Computer models will then be used to help explain and predict what is going on in the brain, he said.

—Third, the institute will … Next Page »

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