Inside Paul Allen’s Plan to Reverse-Engineer the Human Brain


In 2003, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen spent $100 million to build the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. With laser-equipped microscopes and custom brain-slicers, the institute has mapped the brains of mice, monkeys, and humans, showing which genes are turned on-and where-to better understand vision, memory, autism, and other neural phenomena.

Last year Allen ponied up another $300 million to aim the institute at a narrower but more ambitious goal: a complete understanding of how the mouse brain interprets visual information. To succeed, they’ll have to go beyond static gene maps and learn how to watch a living brain in action.


The new method will track electrical activity in neurons-not just in one mouse but many. Called high-throughput electrophysiology, it’s the sort of big-science approach that the federal government is pushing with its Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative (yes, the acronym is indeed Brain), which the Allen Institute has been instrumental in planning.


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