Remembering Paul Allen and His Love for the Human Brain

Martha Snyder Taggart, BrightFocus Editor, Science Communications
  • Science News
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October 15 marked the passing of Microsoft founder Paul at age 65, from complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (a recurring disease he fought earlier in adulthood). And while eulogies flow in about Allen’s passions for IT, sports, and rock & roll, we’d like to call attention to his amazing legacy in neuroscience.

Allen was an early investor in Alzheimer’s and other brain research. The son of a librarian and schoolteacher, Allen himself was brainy, bookish and deeply curious — often referred to as an “idea” man, which also is the name of his best-selling 2011 memoir.

By his life’s end, Allen put a half-billion of his estimated $20B fortune into his Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Science, which is described as a “Manhattan project” investigating how the brain works and tracing the roots of human intellect and consciousness. Its efforts have filled the internet with detailed information that serves as a scaffolding to help scientists find clues and design cures for any number of brain-related diseases, from neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, to neuromuscular diseases like muscular dystrophy, to psychiatric disorders.

Allen was motivated to start the institute when his own mother, a Seattle schoolteacher, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2003. He was devastated by that news, and made it one of his life goal’s to further our understanding of the brain in its entirety, from genes to tissue, including its awe-inspiring network of neural connections.

It’s a large ambition, to be sure, and a worthy one. “Our brains are what make us human. They give rise to our thoughts, actions, movements and desires, store our memories, and enable us to navigate our world every day,” remarks the Allen Institute on its website. “Yet despite decades of research—and impressive knowledge gathered about other aspects of the human body, including our entire genetic sequence—the brain remains largely a mystery.”

One of the institute’s first accomplishments, in 2006, was to map all cells and their respective genetic activity in the mouse brain. That first Allen Brain Atlas, which was made available free-of-charge on the web as a resource for schoolteachers and research scientists alike, features 85M images on 250K slides, altogether comprising 600 TB of data (half the size of the entire Internet in 2003).

Next, Allen embarked on an atlas of the human brain, 3,000 times as big, with 1,000 as many cells, and tracked the genetic activity in each. It too is available for schoolkids everywhere to call up its images and inspect the types of cells inside their own brains. Hopefully, that will interest them in brain health and how their brains work.

Since then, Allen scientists have pursued other large-scale inquiries. Some of them might help BrightFocus’ own grantees answer burning questions, such as how to reconnect sensory cells of the retina and retrain the brain to interpret those images in the challenging effort to restore sight destroyed by glaucoma or macular degeneration. On October 11, just days before Allen died, a press release announced that “new data in the Allen Brain Observatory captures the activity of nearly 30,000 mouse brain cells in the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes visual information.”

Allen is remembered well by a tight group of scientists who served as consultants and researchers with his institute. Despite its success, Allen remained humbled by the scope of the work that still lies ahead. In a 2012 Forbes interview, he suggested that, compared to neuroscience, starting Microsoft was easy:

"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.

"So for someone to learn how to program a computer, in most cases, a human being can do it. You can start programming. I did it in high school. Me and Bill Gates and our friends did that. Probably in a few months we were programming and probably understood what there was to understand about computing within a few years of diving into it.”

In the human brain, designed by evolution, every tiny part is very different from every other tiny part. "It's hideously complex," Allen says. And it's going to take "decades and decades" of more research to understand. "We are talking about dozens and dozens of Nobel Prizes," he says, "that have yet to be won to understand how the brain works."

Allen also can be remembered as a committed philanthropist who, over his lifetime, gave more than $2 billion to efforts aimed at improving education, science, technology, conservation and communities. Years ago, he joined a select group of billionaires who pledged to give away the majority of their fortunes to charity, and his Washington Post obituary quotes a clear philosophy behind his giving.

“Those fortunate to achieve great wealth should put it to work for the good of humanity,” Allen wrote several years ago, when he announced that he was giving the bulk of his fortune to charity. He said that pledge “reminds us all that our net worth is ultimately defined not by dollars but rather by how well we serve others.”

In closing, we simply want to say “thanks” to Paul Allen. The ultimate “idea” man, he loved the human brain and continues to advance the interest and science behind it.