June 2012

$300 million pledged to better understand the music of your brain

Allen Institute logo

Billionaire co-founder of Microsoft Paul G. Allen last month announced a further commitment of $300 million to the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Science, bringing his total financial investment in the independent research center to a reported $500 million.

The pledge comes at a time when the group reports the appointment of two renowned neuroscientists to its leadership team: R. Clay Reid of Harvard Medical School and Ricardo Dolmetsch of Stanford University. They will come aboard in the coming months.

mouse brain 
This image highlights a coronal section of an entire mouse brain, which was stained to delineate anatomical boundaries in many brain regions. This process reveals areas where the density of cell bodies is higher compared to the density of axonal projections — connections between neurons — as cell bodies are stained in red (NeuN) and axonal projections in green (NF160).
This image highlights individual Purkinje cells (red, yellow and green dots) in a region of the cerebellum. Purkinje cells, among the largest neurons in the human brain, are largely controlled by the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA and abnormalities in these cells may be linked to a variety of diseases including neurodegenerative disorders and autism. The blue area is stained with a nuclear stain to highlight the structure of the tissue.

“With its disciplined, mission-focused approach, the institute has successfully tackled big science projects, delivering tangible results that are helping to advance brain research around the world every day,” Allen said in a statement. “I am excited to expand the scale and scope of the institute’s efforts, and I look forward to seeing what we will accomplish in the future.”

This significant investment will be used to support the next four years of an ambitious 10-year research plan at the center, founded in 2003, which aims to tackle some of the most fundamental and complex questions in neuroscience. Specifically, the money will double the staff to 350 and expand their work on neural coding and connectivity.

“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,” Allan Jones, chief executive officer of the center, said in the announcement.

The nonprofit was set up specifically to carry out large projects in an entirely open fashion. With a product-centric approach, the multidisciplinary and diverse team, housed in a 63,000-square-foot building, has spent the past eight years carrying out fundamental work in brain science, generating petabytes of data in the form of “brain atlases,” the results of which are available online.

“We are asking fundamental questions about how the brain works,” Hongkui Zeng, senior scientific director, told ASBMB Today. “What are the building blocks of brain circuitry? And how (do) they all work together to process information and produce behavior?”

cortical neurons 
Here, cortical neurons grown in vitro are visible through a stain (Calretinin, in red) and a counterstain (Dapi, in blue). The high resolution begins to reveal the morphology, or shape, of cell bodies and axons in the individual cells.

She continued, “It’s like trying to understand how a car operates or how an orchestra produces symphonic music. We use the mouse visual system as a model to try to gain insights into the mechanism of brain function. Every day in the lab, we focus on the individual neuronal types … describe their molecular, anatomical and physiological properties, and examine what they do in the intact animal brain while the animal is behaving.… From this, we and others will then be able to further understand which components may break down and how those may affect the entire system during disease states.”

The institute’s previous work has produced high-resolution gene expression data mapped onto anatomically detailed brains of mice and humans and allowed the observation of the genome at work in the nervous system with the hope of developing targeted therapeutics for some of our most important diseases.

Zeng said the team now is “using molecular techniques to label specific types and populations of neurons, examine their connections, monitor their activities and manipulate their functions.”

The National Institute of Mental Health has estimated that 26.4 percent of adult Americans are dealing with some form of mental illness. Meanwhile, 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s at a cost of $200 billion a year.

Allen’s total commitment of $500 million is considered one of the largest philanthropic investments in basic neuroscience research, while his Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, along with his wife, Melinda, has given $28 billion to their Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is set on improving global development and health.

For a more detailed look at the institute’s work, see its April publication in the journal Cell, “Large-scale cellular-resolution gene profiling in human neocortex reveals species-specific molecular signatures” (DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2012.02.052).


Connor Bamford Connor Bamford (connorggbamford@gmail.com) is a Ph.D. student at Queen’s University in Belfast, U.K.

found= true1835