Paul G. Allen commits $300M to expand the Allen Institute for Brain Science to drive toward a complete understanding of how the brain works

March 22, 2012

Connections from the primary somatosensory cortex to the brain's other hemisphere (credit: Allen Institute for Brain Science)

Paul G. Allen has committed an additional $300 million to the Allen Institute for Brain Science to significantly expand its scientific programs, the Institute announced Wednesday March 21.

Bringing his total commitment to date to $500 million, Allen has charged the Institute with tackling some of the most fundamental and complex questions in brain science today.

The answers to these questions are essential for achieving a complete understanding of how the brain works, what goes wrong in brain-related diseases and disorders, and how best to treat them.

Allen’s significant new contribution will support the first four years of an ambitious 10-year plan developed by the Allen Institute for Brain Science. The plan calls for doubling the Institute’s staff to launch three new and complementary scientific initiatives that address critical questions that are central to understanding how the brain works:

  • How does the brain store, encode and process information?
  • What are the cellular building blocks that underlie all brain function, and are often targets of disease?
  • How do those cells develop, and then create the circuits that drive behavior, thought and brain dysfunction?

3D nerve fiber tracts, cortical segmentation, and MRI image of human brain (credit: Allen Institute for Brain Science)

These initiatives are designed to yield knowledge of fundamental principles governing brain function, publicly sharable data, and new tools and technologies that will further accelerate progress across the global research community.

These programs require a team of leading minds at all levels and from across different disciplines to cross-talk and pool their expertise, working toward common goals.

The Allen Institute has already begun to assemble a powerhouse of noted scientific leaders who will collaborate closely and drive creative discovery, innovation and productivity to achieve the goals of the new initiatives.

Christof Koch, Ph.D., joined the Allen Institute from Caltech in 2011 as chief scientific officer. R. Clay Reid, M.D., Ph.D., from Harvard Medical School and Ricardo Dolmetsch, Ph.D., from Stanford University will start in the coming months.

They join the Allen Institute’s senior scientific director of research and development, Hongkui Zeng, Ph.D., who oversees the Allen Mouse Brain Connectivity Atlas project and is already using the Allen Institute’s existing public data sets to begin classifying different cell populations.

Dr. Reid and Dr. Dolmetsch will contribute their respective expertise in neural coding and cell networks to a multidisciplinary conversation with Dr. Zeng and Dr. Koch, who is well known for integrating results from different neuroscientific disciplines to understand the complex computations and functions of the brain.

A pioneer in bringing the “big science” approach to the study of the brain, the Allen Institute has been driving research forward since 2003 by systematically generating massive data sets — comprising a total of 1.3 petabytes to date — and translating them into online public resources. Researchers studying every facet of normal brain function and disease, from learning, cognition, hearing and development to stroke, Alzheimer’s, obesity, schizophrenia, autism, and more, regularly use and cite Allen Institute resources in their research.

The Allen Institute’s data and tools are publicly available online at

Remarks by Paul G. Allen at press conference

These prepared remarks closely, but not entirely, match the speech Allen gave today at a press conference in Seattle. (Provided by Forbes

Good morning. Thank you all for joining us today. As you saw in the video, I have made a new financial commitment to the Institute — a pledge of $300 million to fund new programs you’ll hear more about today.

I’ve always been fascinated by the workings of the human brain. I’m awed by its enormous complexity. Our brains are many magnitudes more advanced in the way they work than any computer software ever invented. Think about this: We can teach students to program computers in a couple of years of school. But even with a lifetime of learning, at present we are far away from fully understanding the brain.

Thus, we have only begun to scratch the surface of the complex problems inherent in figuring out the deep, detailed knowledge of the brain’s inner workings.

More than a decade ago, I was inspired to try to accelerate brain research by a host of leading scientists, including Jim Watson, the co-discoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA. They advised me to develop an accurate and comprehensive map of the brain detailing the expression of every single gene. This would be key to solving basic questions about human behavior, brain disorders and diseases.

It was a call for “big science,” industrial-scale research. It was clear we would need the top researchers in the field, as well as large-scale, custom technology to capture and process enormous volumes of data. The goal was to spur progress across the field, and the best way to ensure that was to allow researchers anywhere in the world to access that data for free. This would set a benchmark for open science and our findings would be public.

We’ve built that map, and scientists around the world have used our data for a variety of important projects, including research into Autism, brain tumors, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and Down syndrome, to name just a few. Today the Brain Atlas is used by researchers studying just about ever facet of the brain.

I’m very proud of the accomplishments Allan and others here have been able to share with the world. Allan is a brilliant researcher himself who put together a team of top scientists, staff and advisors. Together they generate, organize and curate the massive amounts of data that fuel discoveries by the global research community.

I also want to take a moment to thank Christof Koch, the Institute’s Chief Scientific Officer who joined us from CalTech. Christof’s world-class talent in the biophysics of the brain and his vision have been key in launching the new initiatives we’re announcing today.

The Institute’s work requires multidisciplinary collaboration. Our team comprises experts from different fields — from genomics and neuroanatomy to engineering, informatics and computer science. We also work with many universities and other laboratories. These partners bring their own strengths to our joint efforts and will further accelerate our progress.

The job gets tougher now. We are going to tackle some of the biggest challenges in science today (as Allan and Christof will describe). My commitment today doesn’t just continue the work of the Institute. It greatly expands the scale and the scope of our mission.

We hope to foment breakthroughs in neuroscience and unlock great unsolved mysteries of how the brain works. 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. And we’re doing it in the open, community-based way we’ve followed for many years.

We’re now launching our search for answers to the biggest questions in neuroscience today. Those answers will help unlock the principles that drive the fundamental functions of the brain. We are optimistic they will also apply to many diseases and disorders.

Our dream is to one day uncover the essence of what makes us human — to explore and understand how the brain makes us remember, forget, interact with each other and become the people we are.