The Allen Institute for Brain Science, founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, announced a $300 million initiative Wednesday to understand how the brain perceives and makes decisions.
The Seattle-based nonprofit group will double its scientific staff to more than 350 people and build "brain observatories" to map the vision and decision-making pathways in the brain's cerebral cortex, which is central to vision, memory and awareness. It will also explore what goes wrong in brain-related diseases and disorders such as Alzheimer's, autism and depression; the institute also plans to look for ways to treat them.
"They want to really characterize the parts list of the brain and map all its circuits to see how they connect and communicate," neurobiologist Ed Boyden at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told The Wall Street Journal. "It is impossible for an ordinary lab group to bring all these pieces together."
The program is one of several examples of neuroscience research being funded by private philanthropy, with several such projects in the U.S. and U.K. totaling $1 billion in recent years, offsetting the reduction of traditional funding in those fields.
The Allen Institute is unusual in that it is run more like a startup than a traditional academic lab whose researchers are focused on publishing studies in peer-reviewed publications.
Founded in 2003 with a $100 million grant, the group has already set itself apart by developing new technology for brain research and then making it freely available to scientists worldwide.
A year ago, the institute released a $55 million computerized atlas documents human brain structure, biochemistry and genetics using a number of imaging techniques, as well as a set of new tools to analyze that data; 4,000 scientists has used it so far. The institute also has online atlas of the mouse brain, which gets 50,000 visitors a month.
"They are trying to bring something new and a little different to the understanding of how the brain works," neuroscientist Stephen Smith of Stanford University Medical School told The Journal.
This newest grant by Allen to the foundation will fund the first four years of the 10-year research project, and the institute will search for new funding for the rest. Typically, 20% of the institute's annual funding comes from other sources.
"Our dream is to uncover the essence of what makes us human," Allen said. "There is really no greater challenge with a potentially more huge impact than understanding how brains work."
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photo: Lorenzo Bandieri/Wikimedia