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Paul Allen's plan to understand the brainSeptember 23, 2012 @ 9:58 am
As Paul Allen's Seahawks get ready for Monday Night Football, he's facing a more intricate battle in a laboratory in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood. The Allen Institute for Brain Sciences is trying to reverse engineer the brain.
Allen - the 59-year-old Microsoft co-founder, Seahawks owner, and Experience Music Project creator among other things - has put $500 million into figuring out how the brain works, both when it's healthy and when it's suffering from disease.
His first $100 million investment resulted in a gigantic computer map of how genes work in the brains of mice, a tool that other scientists have used to pinpoint genes that may play a role in multiple sclerosis, memory and eating disorders in people.
Another $100 million went to creating a similar map of the human brain, already resulting in new theories about how the brain works.
Although the research started in 2003, it became more personal for Allen earlier this year when his mother, June, died of Alzheimer's.
"Any time you've seen a loved one…," Allen says with his voice trailing off as he talks with a Forbes reporter.
"You see their personality, everything that makes them human, slowly slipping away, and there is nothing you can do about it."
Understanding the brain, Allen argues, is much like a being a medieval blacksmith trying to reverse engineer a jet plane. It’s not just that you don't understand how the wing attaches to the fuselage or what makes the engine go. You don't even know the basic theory of how air going over a wing creates lift. "Moore's Law-based technology is so much easier than neuroscience," Allen says. “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...
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.
AP file photo
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