Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen announced this week that he is donating $300 million of his estimated $14 billion fortune to the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the research center he helped establish in 2003.

 

Allen donated $100 million to the institute when it was founded, followed by another $100 million a few years later. This latest contribution, which will be spread out over the next four years, brings his total contribution to $500 million.

 

"As someone who has been touched by the impact of a neurodegenerative disease — my mother has Alzheimer's — there's both a fascination in basic research and the hope that we can move things forward," Allen said during a news conference on March 21.

 

The new funds will support the first four years of a 10-year research plan to examine questions about how the brain works. "This new funding enables us to apply our structured, industrial-scale approach to science to tackle increasingly complex questions about how the brain works — questions that must be answered if we are to understand and treat autism, Alzheimer's disease, depression, traumatic brain injury and the myriad other brain-related diseases and disorders that affect all of us either directly or indirectly," the institute's chief executive officer, Dr. Allan Jones, said in a prepared release.

 

Allen described the goals of the 10-year research program, often equating brains with the computing field for which he is most famous. "We hope to foment breakthroughs in neuroscience and unlock great unsolved mysteries of how the brain works," he said when announcing his contribution. "To understand this complex organ, we're starting with individual cells, to better understand how they develop, integrate information, and make decisions. In parallel, we are studying how collections of brain cells act together to form circuits, and how information is input, transformed, and processed in those circuits."

 

The first phase of the research will examine mouse brains, specifically targeting how the brain processes information from the eyes and translates visual stimuli into information. "We're focusing on vision because it's a good entry point," said Jones. "But the goal isn't to understand vision, but to understand how the brain works." While mice have much simpler brains than humans, the research could provide insight into human brains.

 

Institute scientists will also compile what they call an "encyclopedia" of hundreds of different types of human brain cells.

 

All research done by the institute is conducted under a public-access model and is freely available through the institute's website. Currently, 1.3 petabytes of data gathered by institute scientists since 2003 is available to researchers around the world. (One petabyte is equal to 1000 terabytes, if that gives you a sense of scale.) 

 

The Allen Institute currently has a staff of about 180 people, but that will double over the next four years to more than 350 people. Hiring has already begun.

 

This video from the Allen Institute for Brain Science introduces the group's work:

 

 

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