IT is a rare thing that a president of the United States takes an interest in a specific area of scientific research. President Obama’s pledge of $100 million is welcome news to the field of brain research, including researchers in Seattle.
On Tuesday he announced brain-research funding at the National Institutes for Health, the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). He included in his announcement four privately funded efforts, the largest of which is at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science.
Allan Jones, chief executive of the institute, was one of the leaders in the field invited to the White House. The Allen Institute comes to the table with a 210-member staff, $60 million to $80 million a year in support from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and a commitment to share data with researchers around the world.
Jones compared the state of brain research today to molecular biology in 1950 or chemistry in 1900 — moments when doors were just opening.
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“This is an important time in scientific history,” he said. “It’s time to understand the language of the human brain.”
Allen Institute researchers can already do amazing things. They can make skin cells into brain cells: Take the skin cells, induce them into becoming stem cells and reprogram the stem cells into neurons.
In another procedure, they can induce the firing of a neuron with laser light. But what they still don’t know is how the brain takes information, stores it and computes it.
“There are still very daunting problems,” Jones said.
The end point of all this may be treatments for Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury and even obesity, all of which are controlled by the brain. No one knows what the end point will be. This is just the beginning.