The announcement was made at a press conference today in Seattle and in a commentary in Nature, one of the world’s best scientific journals, written by Christof Koch, the Institute’s Chief Scientific Officer, and R. Clay Reid of Harvard Medical School. They lay out a way of doing brain research that involves optogenetics, a kind of deep stimulation of the brain using light, connectomics, the study of connections in the brain, and brain observatories, ways of monitoring what happens in the brain in real time. Right now, because the mouse is smaller and simpler, much of the early efforts focus on the mouse brain. One of Allen’s new efforts is to map the visual connections between the brain and the mouse. There, mice have perhaps 2 million neurons involved in vision, compared to 5 billion such cells for humans.
“If you start out as a programmer, as I did in high school, the brain works in a completely different fashion than computers do,” Allen said, calling the effort “fascinating” and “noting that he’s been touched by neurodegenerative diseases” — his mother has Alzheimer’s. On the call he noted that while it’s possible to teach a student — a human brain — to program a computer in a matter of years, a computer can’t learn to function like a human brain even given a lifetime of opportunity. “”You can’t create an artificial intelligence,” Allen said, “unless you know how the real thing works.”
“We know that such an expensive project will have critics,” Koch and Reid write. “The resources required could fund hundreds of other projects, so why focus them in this way? Our response is that funding agencies are already spending billions of dollars on many smaller projects across all areas of biomedical research, and the Allen Institute wants to pioneer a new approach. We want to understand one piece of brain tissue by integrating knowledge across techniques and scales, rather than distributing the funds more widely.”
Ed Boyden, an associate professor at the MIT Media Lab who is one of the pioneers in the field of optogenetics, echoed that sentiment. “The Allen Institute is assembling an extraordinary set of tools to tackle brain circuitry in a vertically integrated way, from the parts lists to how they all work together,” he wrote via Facebook chat. “It is impossible for an ordinary lab group to bring all these pieces together.”
Allen’s remarks were eloquent and inspiring, and I have included them in full below.
Remarks of Paul G. Allen
These prepared remarks closely, but not entirely, match the speech Allen gave today at a press conference in Seattle.
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 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.