Microsoft co-founder builds biotech legacy with $500M neuroscience odyssey

The poorly understood biology of the brain is blamed for many neuroscience-drug fiascos. Yet Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has poured half a billion dollars into his Seattle neuroscience institute, which has already produced brain maps used in major academic and Big Pharma labs, Forbes editor Matthew Herper writes. And Allen and his scientists aim to reverse engineer the brain as never before, opening up unfathomable opportunities to learn how the complex organ works.

Money can buy lots of progress in science, and Allen wants the Allen Institute for Brain Science to play a major role in his legacy. Inspired by the Human Genome Project, Allen is trying to fund the kind of breaking research that could uncover the mysteries of consciousness and answer riddles about diseases such as Alzheimer's, which claimed the life of his mother in June. Appearing healthy after his latest battle with cancer, Allen told Herper that the latest $300 million commitment to the institute will tackle ambitious projects such as "reverse engineering" the brain by understanding how all the cells in the brain develop and studying the mouse brain visual cortex.

The institute, which has already published maps of mouse and human brains with $200 million from Allen, has gone on a recent hiring spree to gather some of the top minds in neuroscience for the next round of ambitious projects. As Herper writes, Allen's tapped three of the best brain scientists in the country. His leading minds will have a small army of scientists and others to aid their work, as the institute now plans to double its staff of 200, which is already three times the number of people working there a year and a half ago, according to the Forbes article.

Allen indicated that he isn't going to let the huge price tag of his institute get in the way of progress, with ideas on the table to fund the organization for decades to come, as he has some insights about the difficulty of the organization's mission from his experience as a software engineer.

"Moore's Law-based technology is so much easier than neuroscience," Allen told Herper in a rare interview. "The brain works in such a different way from the way a computer does. The computer is a very regular structure. It's very uniform. It's got a bunch of memory, and it's got a little element that computes bits of memory and combines them with each other and puts them back somewhere. It's a very simple thing."

Conversely, neuroscientists lack the luxury of knowing all the parts of the brain and how they work. And existing neuroscience drugs such as antidepressants might seem like crude tools with respect to what could eventually be revealed about such ailments and ways to fix them. With the backing of Allen, his institute appears poised to serve up some of the tools and discoveries to aid other labs doing research of the next-generation neuroscience drugs for a wide variety of brain disorders.

- read Herper's article

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