Paul G. Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft Corp., pledged an additional $300 million to the brain center that bears his name to study how vision works.
The Allen Institute for Brain Science, based in Seattle and founded in 2003, will begin a 10-year project to map the visual system. That brings Allen’s total contribution to $500 million, said Allan Jones, the chief executive officer of the institute, in a telephone interview.
The project, starting in mice, will involve several hundred scientists and will apply knowledge from genomics, anatomy, computer modeling and physiology. A map of the visual cortex, the place in the brain that receives and processes the messages of sight, may help improve understanding of higher brain function, said Christof Koch, chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute and R. Clay Reid of Harvard University Medical School in Boston, in an editorial today in the journal Nature.
“Although the institute’s project will focus on visual stimuli in mice, it will capture fundamental aspects of higher brain functions: perception, conscious awareness and decision-making, and how they lead to action,” Koch and Reid, who is joining the Allen Institute, said in the article.
Once understood in mice, scientists may turn to the human visual system, the researchers said. Human brains have a mass of about 3 pounds, while mouse brains are .001 pounds. Human brains have 86 billion neurons, mice have only 70 million.
Researchers will catalog neurons and measure the electrical activity of the cells as they transmit messages into and out of the visual cortex. Using techniques of genetic engineering that make the neurons light up, they will watch circuits activate whenever the animal makes a decision, enabling them to chart the anatomy of neural networks.
“The Allen Institute has found a unique niche to do these things at a large scale,” Jones said. Usually in academic settings, individual researchers’ questions drive the science. This allows for a more-systematic approach, he said.
To support the initiative, the Institute plans to double its current staff to more than 350 people over the next four years. Today’s donation will fund the first four years of the new project.
In April 2011, the Institute created a gene map of the human brain and made it freely available to assist researchers studying disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and autism. That effort followed a 2006 map of the mouse brain.