Allan Jones caught a red-eye from Seattle to be at the White House on Tuesday when President Obama announced plans for a major initiative to unravel the complexities of the human brain.
“It was fantastic,” said Jones, who as CEO of the Allen Institute for Brain Science has been tackling those very mysteries for more than a decade. He also helped craft the new initiative, and, along with his staff, will be working to bring it to fruition.
“The brain is so complicated, and there is so much to learn,” Jones said, shortly before catching a return flight to Seattle. “You need the best and the brightest and you need them all rowing in the same direction.”
Obama asked Congress to appropriate about $110 million next year to kick off what he envisions as a multiyear effort to better understand the most complex organ of all. Potential payoffs include treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, autism, stroke and the types of brain injuries suffered by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama said.
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“As humans, we can identify galaxies light-years away,” he said. “We can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.”
Struck by the same paradox, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen created the Allen Institute in 2003. The $500 million Allen has committed to the institute is his biggest single charitable gift and an amount that even Obama might envy.
Allen praised Obama in a tweet Tuesday, adding: “Large-scale collaboration is key.”
Nino Ramirez, who directs the Center for Integrative Brain Research at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, echoed the delight of neuroscientists across the country.
“This sets a priority,” he said. “And it sets in motion a new kind of research, on a grand scale.”
Jones and the Allen Institute joined with the Kavli and Gatsby foundations to convene a meeting in 2011 that laid the groundwork for what the Obama administration is calling BRAIN: Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. The meeting brought together scientists who study the brain with scientists who work on nanotechnology — the engineering of tools and materials on a minute scale.
New tools that can record the activity of single neurons or zero in on tiny brain regions are vital to advances in brain science, Jones said. The atmosphere at the meeting was electric as the neuroscientists realized the power of nanotechnology. “People got really excited about the possibility that we could ultimately map all of the activity in the brain in real time,” Jones said.
The result was a flurry of white papers and follow-up meetings where the approach was refined.
But many details remain to be worked out. Obama designated Rockefeller University’s Cornelia Bargmann and William Newsome of Stanford to lead a working group that will define goals and develop a long-term plan and budget. Allen Institute scientists will be part of the conversation, Jones said.
BRAIN’s initial focus would be development of new techniques to probe the brain in greater detail than now possible, he explained. Currently, scientists rely on MRI scans to look inside the human brain. The instruments can single out activity in areas as small as a millimeter across, but that’s not good enough.
“In a millimeter of brain tissue, you’ve got millions of cells and each cell is connected to 10,000 other cells,” Jones said.
The entire human brain contains about 86 billion neurons, wired in circuits made up of 100 trillion connections.
Researchers have developed techniques using lasers and fluorescent tags to mark single brain circuits and switch them on and off in living animals. Those methods can’t be used in people, but they reflect the advances made in recent years, Jones said.
“It’s really a unique time in brain science, where the technology is improving very, very quickly, but we still know so little about how the brain works.”
There has been little progress in the past two to three decades when it comes to being able to cure or even treat brain disorders such as childhood epilepsy and aggressive tumors, Ramirez said.
If Congress goes along, the federal money will be awarded to laboratories in the form of competitive grants. Some of that money could come to researchers in Seattle, Ramirez pointed out. Even the Allen Institute could apply for funding.
Obama compared the brain initiative to sequencing the first human genome, an ambitious project that took more than 12 years and cost more than $1 billion. Today, modern instruments can zip through an entire genome in a matter of weeks.
Jones hopes to match the enthusiasm engendered by the Human Genome Project — and sidestep the rivalries between labs racing to be the first to the prize. That’s why he made another exhausting plane trip to Brussels two months ago, to show his support when the European Union launched its own, $1.3 billion brain initiative.
“I don’t want anybody to start pitching this as Europe versus the U.S. or private versus public,” he said. “There’s so much to do it would be really foolish for us to do anything other than work together.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Sandi Doughton at: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org